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3 Simple Ways to Improve Your Remote User Interviews

When you can't do in-person, you can absolutely make the most of this next-best option.

As humans, we’re hard-wired to have the most productive conversations when we’re together, in-person. But that reality isn’t always possible. Your business might be located in Madrid, serving customers all over the world. As much as you’d like to travel to your customers or host them on-site at your office, you may not have the budget, time, or facilities to do so.

The tips below will help you run smoother, more efficient, and more impactful remote interviews. These are adapted from 13 years of firsthand experience running phone and online interviews, with teams of up to 12 researchers from business, government, and healthcare backgrounds. Over my career doing user research, these are the most important lessons that I have learned for remote research:

1. Expect Technology Challenges; Plan Around Them

Thanks to low-cost and user-friendly video and phone tech, you can interview users anywhere in the world on almost no budget. But your users may not have the same levels of technical aptitude that you do. Not to mention, you have limited control over what distractions are happening in the real-world, on the other side of the screen. There may be browser crashes, bandwidth streaming hiccups, or other distractions to your conversation.

Here is a simple set of steps that my team takes to minimize the chances of a technical hiccup happening during remote user research.

Establish a clear line of communication.

Our first point of contact with users happens over email. When we reach out, we let interviewees know that they are about to go through a guided process. This alleviates uncertainty off the bat, and reduces uncertainty from interviewees who aren’t sure what to expect. We let them know what technology to expect we’ll be using, what format the conversation will take, and that their information will be kept confidential. With this clear line of communication established, users take the initiative to ask us their questions. 

We only require video if we need it for our research goals.

Video is always a preferred option of communication, second best to an in-person conversation. We understand that the use of video is not always feasible, convenient, or accessible, however. If you make video mandatory, you may end up ignoring an important but overlooked sub-segment of your user base. We clarify whether video is mandatory for every interview.

Give people web and phone-based dial-in options.

If the software that we use freezes, or if internet connectivity slows down, there is always a backup option. This flexibility gives calls more breathing room and alleviates stress, all around. There is limited scrambling if a conversation pauses or stops because of a technical or logistical. Just switch to the other option.

Outsource administrative tasks.

We outsource administrative tasks to a virtual assistant team who is on-call to answer technical, scheduling, or logistical questions questions. This group has their eyes on customer experiences from a logistical perspective, ensuring that there are no lapses or miscommunications. As a result, our research team does not need to focus their attention on scheduling. Instead, they can focus on showing up to the conversation, fully prepared, at the right time.

If you’re a User Interviews customer, you can also take advantage of the simple to use scheduling and messaging tools to save time on administrative tasks and keep communication clear.

We have easy-to-follow instructions available, on standby.

The most common questions that we receive from our interviewees is how to enable screen sharing or video with our conferencing applications. If you know your interviewees will need to share their screen, save them the time and need to ask by explaining where the feature is at the beginning of your conversation.

We vet our technology for reliability.

We have tested seven video platforms and alternate between three types of software, depending on the technical sophistication and software already being used by our users. We maintain a tracking log of uptime, crashes, and technical errors. We monitor international law and data policy such as EU Privacy Shield and GDPR to ensure that our systems are compliant. Whatever you use, test it first and don’t be afraid to re-evaluate periodically for the best options for your needs. All things being equal, we love Zoom for most interviews.

💻 90% of user researchers said they've worked exclusively remotely since the pandemic began. Read the stats on remote work amid COVID-19, the rise of remote user research tools, and more in ✨The State of User Research 2021 Report.

2. Be a Good Listener—Don’t Multitask

We use a social science practice called grounded theory, which is based on listening to what people say, how they say it, and extrapolating patterns. We also use observational research to see how interviewees interact with website and product experiences. These methods only work if we are attentive and present. That means:

Avoid multitasking at the computer.

No matter how much pressure you’re under to answer “that urgent email,” it will absolutely be at the cost of being fully present and making the most out of every interview. Qualitative research is only effective when the researcher embraces his or her role as listener, observer, synthesizer, and analyzer.

Take notes that work.

A study from Princeton and UCLA found that students who handwrite their notes learn more than those who type on laptops. Take handwritten notes now and type them while organizing them by patterns etc after the fact.

One of the benefits of digital conferencing software is that it’s easy to record conversations—and inexpensive to transcribe them. Rather than taking notes, you can focus on the questions and answers you’re generating. You can have the flexibility and freedom to pursue conversation threads that you did not consider while planning.

If you can work with a colleague who can take notes for you, that’s even better!

Ask open-ended questions.

When interviewing users remotely, be mindful that you aren’t in the same room with the other person. That’s why it’s even more important to ask open-ended questions that encourage your interviewees to tell a story. As a discussion facilitator, you should plan to be silent, while maintaining eye contact and appearing physically engaged, for the majority of your conversation.

In general we make sure that our researchers have a dedicated job: to uncover information in an objective, methodical way.

3. Build a “Virtual Space”

Even though our interviewees may not be in the same room as our research team, we focus on creating a “virtual space,”  in the words of the research team at Nielsen Norman Group.

“It can be difficult to know when to ask a question in a remote study,” 

~Amy Schade, former director of research at Nielsen Norman Group.

“Silence on the other end of the line may mean that the user is confused, immersed in content, looking around the page, or distracted. It can be difficult to find the balance between letting users know you are listening and interrupting them. Although the same is true in face-to-face studies, the problem can be magnified in remote studies.” 

She recommends that researchers take the following steps to overcome this challenge—to construct a virtual space:

  • Practice using your technology with people outside of your company. Mock up a real test situation with clear instructions
  • Pilot test your instructions and tasks. This step will help you identify potential areas of misunderstanding and confusion—avoid hiccups before they become user-facing.
  • Take pauses to ask users if they have any questions or need to pause. Unlike the real world, you can’t read body language in the same way that you can in the real world.

“The facilitator can gently budge a quiet participant to share more about what he is doing,” writes Schade.

One technique that she recommends is a process called the “think-aloud protocol,” which asks users to “talk through what they’re doing as they’re doing it.” To describe this method, Jakob Nielsen, co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group writes: “It serves as a window into the soul, letting you discover what users really think about your design.”

When a Storyhackers team member conducts a research interview, it can take 10-15 minutes for a participant to open up. We find that users are not accustomed to speaking their thoughts out loud. In these cases, we ask extensive follow-up questions. We ask users to share stories, with prompts like “tell me about a time that you…” or “walk me through your process for achieving goal X.”

Tying It All Together

Remote interviews are a flexible and fast way to get insights and feedback. While they do not provide all the benefits of in-person research, they make up for it many situations being they are so accessible to both researchers and participants. Just make sure to adapt your approach if you’re more accustomed to in-person research to make the most out of them.

You can launch a remote study with User Interviews in just a few minutes. Get started here with your first three participants free.

Ritika Puri

Ritika is a writer, entrepreneur, and founder of Storyhackers. She has studied and practiced user research as part of her work for years and is excited to be diving into the topic here for User Interviews.

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