Working at Automattic, a company at the time of writing this post has 565 employees working from 56 different countries, it’s imperative to learn how to work remotely. Luckily, in this day and age we have plenty of tools to help us do our jobs from virtually anywhere we’d like. Slack for daily conversation, internal WordPress blogs for teams, projects, and company-wide communication, and Zoom for meetings and town halls. These tools make up just a short list of what we use on a daily basis to work together around the globe.
Conveniently, this works out just as well for remote user research. Whether we are conducting user interviews or moderated usability testing, the setup is the same. This post is a quick run down of how we conduct remote user research.
If you’re working with an audience across the globe, all under budget and time constraints, remote user testing can provide the rich data to help make informed decisions. –UX Magazine
If you’re wondering what user research is or what type of research is best, Raven Veal, from UserTesting.com, has a great beginners article to explain “How to conduct user experience research like a professional“. We’re going to skip the overview here and assume you already know how to recruit users for your research and are thoughtful about drafting an effective recruiting email. Instead, I am going to jump right into the tools and setup we use at Automattic for scheduling and conducting a remote study.
Scheduling with Calendly
There are many tools that you can use to help avoid emails back and forth to try to find a suitable time. A few teams at Automattic use Calendly to help with this. You can setup available times to be booked individually or across multiple team members. If you connect to your Google account it will only display available time slots to be bookable based on events already scheduled on your calendar.
There are additional scheduling settings that can be helpful such as a buffer time before/after events on your calendar, or how far into the future you want someone to be able to book. We’ve found more success with completed sessions when we limit the amount of time one can book out, a month in the future is easily forgotten. A week or two at most is ideal.
You can also setup email confirmations and reminders to go out before the scheduled session. There is a quick, easy way to cancel for participants, which you can include a link to rebook automattically for you.
Google Calendar appointment slots and YouCanBookMe.com are two similar ways you can help automate booking. I personally prefer Calendly for the simple and clean interface. If you’d like to see how this works, feel free to setup a time to chat with me!
Zoom for Video
Zoom is an excellent video conferencing app, we’ve rarely had issues using it. They provide a quick, easy way to download the app via a short link to the session we’ve scheduled. If a participant is not able to connect via video, a phone number to call-in is also available. It’s easy to enable screenshare for usability tests and record the session. A .mp4 video file and .m4a audio only file can be automattically downloaded to your computer once complete, or can be saved to the cloud with a premium account.
The bandwidth used by Zoom will be optimized for the best experience based on the participants’ network. It will automatically adjust for 3G, WiFi or Wired environments. –Zoom
Zoom does a great job if an internet connection is unstable, you get a message informing you so. Many times, the video will catch up and it won’t be a problem, but it’s best if you have an internet connection that is at least 1.5mb up/down.
When notetakers join, we have them turn their video off, mute their mics, and can use Zoom settings to hide non-video participants from view so that we can focus on the 1:1 conversation or test at hand.
Google Docs for Scripts and Documenting Notes
Like many businesses, we use Google docs to collaborate as a team on the script prior to the interview/usability session. We have a template that we copy and customize per session specific to the participant. There are many ways you can set this up. For example, the template I use has 3 columns, one to help me keep track of how much time I should be spending on each section, one for my script and questions and one for my notes on the right.
Some people, like Information Architect Abby Covert, author of Making Sense of Any Mess, prefers using spreadsheets so that she can more easily aggregate, sort, and evaluate her findings once complete. It’s really up to the person leading the session to use the tools/methods that are most comfortable to them. So play around with what feels right and practice, practice, practice!
Slack for Team Communication
It’s always a good idea to try and have at least 1-2 people listening in to help take notes in addition to the one leading the session. This allows the host to focus on the questions and answers rather than furiously typing or scribbling away notes as you go. It’s also important that research isn’t done in a silo. Inviting teammates from marketing, business, product development, and design can help increase empathy and give them first-hand takeaways for future improvements or new opportunities.
We use Slack to help prep for sessions and communicate during in the background between the host and notetakers. If there’s a point they need clarified or a question they think should be asked, the host can try to work it in.
Clock for timekeeping
Don’t forget to keep your eye on the time allotted for the session! It can be easy to get lost in conversation or a usability test can easily veer off track if you’re not careful. Be sure to find the right pace, and that the tasks you are testing can be completed in the time allotted.
Preparation is Key
Before you start your first user test, plan to spend about an hour getting comfortable with your setup. Before I start, I clear my desk and space from any distractions. I open a test Zoom session to make sure the background of my video is presentable, the audio and video is setup and working as I expect, and I’ve organized all my windows on my screen appropriately.
Pro tip! Use Shift + Command + A on a Mac (Alt + A on a PC) to quickly mute/unmute your mic as needed.
This can be helpful for unexpected sounds as to not distract the participant.
I also put my iPhone in do not disturb mode and mute my Slack notifications for 2 hours. It’s key to eliminate any distractions, a Slack ping or buzz from a text can interrupt the flow of your session.
It is a good idea to practice internally with a teammate or friend before doing a live user test or interview. It can be incredibly helpful, especially if you are doing a usability test, as the saying is true: anything that can go wrong will. Doing a run-thru with another person can help you catch things you might have missed on your own. Practicing can help make sure everything goes as you expect from your end, can help make sure you have your timing right, and can help get any nerves out of the way. After conducting a few it can become much more natural, with not as much prep time needed.
Once you complete your research, it’s just as important how you spend your time analyzing AND communicating your results. As the Head of WooCommerce, Todd Wilkens, told me early in my user research journey:
Many people think it is the job of a user researcher to do research, when actually it’s more their job to teach people the results the research has found.
As Covert mentions in her talk linked above, it’s important to know your audience and the best ways to communicate those results to that audience. Some may lean more on data, charts and spreadsheets, while others may relate more to user quotes or actually seeing/hearing the users first-hand from the recording.
At Automattic we have a saying: “if you don’t p2 it, it never happened” meaning everything we do should be well-documented on our internal blogs so others can learn from the work we are doing. When communicating the results of the research we do, I find it most-effective to communicate in a variety of ways: screenshare of findings/presentation during team meetings, documenting the recap of each study on p2, posting the Zoom recording and even working some feedback into GitHub issues, our developers platform of choice.
When thinking of the tools you need, be sure to consider what works best for you and your team, not only to conduct research but also with how to best communicate it once complete. And continue to remind those that may easily forget the importance of understanding customer needs.