Conducting customer research remotely: Tips, tricks, and resources

Conducting research remotely has benefits.

Management tips in coronavirus times
1:09

The shift to working remotely in response to the current pandemic means many organizations are having to rethink their approach to understanding customers.

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Luckily, conducting research remotely has long been part of business as usual for many organizations, and for good reason -- it provides benefits that help make research more accessible and impactful, especially:

  • Faster insights. With no need for travel or much setup, many studies can be conducted in less time remotely. For high-frequency methods like usability testing, platforms such as UserTesting and UserZoom can yield results for unmoderated studies in a matter of hours -- powering fast, insights-driven decision making.
  • Larger samples. Though researchers know qualitative studies typically don't require huge samples, some stakeholders don't understand this and need to be appeased. Remote tools enable asynchronous research -- so you can get insights from many people at once. Some researchers also use mobile diary and ethnography tools such as dscout and Indeemo to do qualitative validation of in-depth studies done in person with a handful of participants.
  • More diverse samples. Geography and travel often limit who you can include in a study, but remote research lets you reach participants around the globe. One of my favorite illustrations of the power of this approach comes from Kat Lee when she led research at Square: She and her team used dscout to understand rural small-business owners -- a study that had major implications for the business.

Remote Research Can Be Challenging, But There Are Solutions

Remote research has suddenly become the only way to do research -- for now. So I've summarized the most important elements of Forrester's advice about this below. Within each of these elements, I've also included links to valuable guidance that several of the research technology and services providers, as well as a few practitioners, have published in recent weeks in response to the pandemic to help you navigate research in a remote world.

Get Creative With Remote Approaches

Some methods -- like usability testing of digital experiences -- easily lend themselves to being performed remotely. Others, like in-depth field research, are trickier to do remotely. But there are substitute approaches -- tools such as cultural probes, for example, which give participants guided kits that help them reveal their context and day-to-day realities. There's also diary study and remote interviewing tools, which can provide valuable snapshots into customers' realities when thoughtfully applied. Here are some resources I recommend for getting creative with remote research:

You Don't Need Research Tech To Make Remote Research Succeed

If you don't have access to remote research tools because of budget or compliance issues, don't let that hold you back. Many organizations conduct the bulk of their remote research using videoconferencing platforms like Zoom or Google Hangouts. And these tools have features that can make research easier, aside from just videoconferencing: The Zoom Enterprise and Business licenses include automatic transcription capabilities, which can make it easier to capture interview notes. And Google Hangouts has live captioning. If issues with compliance or budget prevent you from using a diary study tool, consider hacking together your own using SMS and mobile photo/video capabilities.

(If budget has been your barrier to tapping research technology vendors, check out some of the offers that many are extending in response to COVID-19 in the list at the bottom of this post.)

Use Digital Whiteboards For Collaborative Analysis

If you haven't already, now is a great time to check out tools such as Miro and MURAL that make it easy to translate "Post-it on the wall" work to a digital and distributed world. These tools are a mainstay of most of the distributed teams I speak with and are designed with a researcher/designer user base in mind. That said, if you don't have access to these tools, try the next best thing, like working in a shared PowerPoint deck that you prepopulate with digital Post-its for participants to capture findings and naming a point person on the call to be the one to drive clustering. Here are some resources I recommend about digital whiteboards:

Make Insights Sharing Interactive

As is true with all remote meetings, the key to making readouts of findings successful is to keep them interactive and engaging -- in other words, translating what works in person to a remote setting. That means setting up the tool (such as Zoom) to enable questions and polling and being thoughtful about scheduling pauses and opening up the space for conversation. If you're in the habit of sharing nuggets of data and insights on the fly, consider setting up a research findings Slack channel. You can make this even more impactful by pairing it with a tool such as Reduct, which lets you easily edit and share video-reel highlights from customer interviews so that participants do the talking.

Vendors Are Making It Easier Than Ever To Use Their Tools

The research tech space is growing (UserTesting, for example, just announced a $100 million funding round). And even when in-person research becomes possible again, the need for companies to use these tools to better integrate insights into decision making will continue to increase. If you haven't used these tools in the past, now is a great time to test them out. In response to COVID-19, research vendors are making their tools more available than ever. Here are a few special offers I've come across:

  • UserTesting has free templates for research related to COVID-19 and is offering an early release of its Marketing Insight platform with a 30-day free trial. Learn more here.
  • Validately (a UserZoom company) is offering five no-cost 30-minute moderated user interviews with participants from UserZoom's panel when you sign up here for a free account.
  • Loop 11, until the end of May, is increasing the limits on its Rapid Insights plan, cutting the cost of a monthly pro subscription to $199 per month and extending trials from 14 to 25 days. Learn more here.
  • Lookback is making its usual 14-day free trial more flexible -- accommodating requests to extend and allowing for unlimited participant observations. Learn more here.
  • MURAL is extending its free trial offering to 90 days.

This post was written by Senior Analyst Kelly Price, and it originally appeared here.