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Running Amazing Remote UX Research Sessions with Sonya Badigian

This week on Awkward Silences, the gang talks about the benefits of remote research and how to do it effectively.

Sonya Badigian knows a thing or two about getting things done remotely. As a UX & Content Specialist at fully-remote Marketade, many of the research studies she runs happen entirely online. There can be drawbacks, like downed WiFi and malfunctioning screen sharing apps, but there are many ways remote environments actually enrich her research.

We had her on the pod to talk about the tools she uses to do remote research right, the pros and cons of online sessions, and how she gets stakeholders on board with the research process.

Listen to the episode

Click the embedded player below to listen to the audio recording. Go to our podcast website for full episode details.

About our guest

Sonya Badigian is a UX and Content Specialist at Marketade. She recently earned a Masters in Human Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon. After graduating and taking a remote research job, she was surprised to learn how powerful remote research can be.


[1:27] Sonya talks through how she came to love remote research

[4:51] There are still some research studies you can’t do remotely

[6:58] There are also some times when remote research allows you to do things in-person wouldn’t

[9:34] Using your rapport building time to learn about the participant’s real life applications of the product

[11:05] How the user’s existing processes can enrich your understanding

[12:25] Making the most of technical difficulties

[17:16] Getting the client to take notes for you

[20:04] Convenience doesn’t mean lower quality results

[27:56] It’s all about empathy

Why remote research?

Traditionally, in academic settings, user research is done through in-person sessions. During these sessions, the researcher either invites the participant to an office or lab for the session, or travels to observe them in the environment they’re hoping to learn more about (like a shop-along in a grocery store). The thing is, that kind of research takes time, money, and effort that a lot of studies can just do without. There are some things you still can’t do remotely, like watch someone interact with their TV or choose a shirt in a store, but many things, like testing your website’s usability, or conducting a generative interview, don’t require you to be in the same room as your participants.

💻 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.

1. Remote research is cost-effective

Remote research typically requires a lot less, in terms of resources. You typically won’t need a lab or special space to conduct your research, plane tickets to meet your participants, sometimes you won’t even need any additional equipment. For many remote studies, both you and your participant will just need computers with webcams and a video conferencing software, which you likely already have.

2. Remote research is easier for participants

When you conduct in-person research, you’re typically asking for more from your participants. An in-home visit means they need to prepare for your arrival. An interview at your office means they need to commute to get there.

Remote research is often as simple as opening a laptop, and maybe downloading Zoom if they don’t already have it. It’s easier for them to find the time to provide feedback and complete tasks if it requires less extra effort. Remote is also a great way for your participants to complete unmoderated tasks, which are done whenever they can find time.

3. You can talk to folks from anywhere with remote research

Sonya once worked on a study for a client who wanted to test a voice controlled app. But how do you study how a voice control app interacts with different accents? How can you talk to people who regularly use the term y’all, pahk the cah in havahd yahd, or are speaking English as their second language? You find people from all over the country. It wouldn’t be possible to find the collection of accents they needed to test in one small city, Sonya and her team would need to find people from around the US to contribute their voices. Through remote studies, they were able to connect with those people.

A few episodes ago, Cat Anderson spoke enthusiastically  about her ability to talk insurance with a janitor in the Ozarks. That’s where the magic of remote research lies. It opens doors for researchers to talk to anyone, from anywhere, so long as they have an internet connection and a desire to provide feedback. And that’s pretty darn cool.

4. Remote research can provide more true-to-life context

Since, in many cases, participants take part in remote research in their homes, at their offices, or somewhere in between, there can be a lot of distractions. But you know what? That’s what real life is like. Unfortunately, people aren’t interacting with your website in a perfectly quiet lab. There are barking dogs and crying children and people knocking on the door sometimes. Those things are a part of the experience, and can play a role in how your user ultimately interacts with your product.

On the pod, Sonya told a few stories of moments that really drove this point home for her. There was the woman who worked from home, and had to tend to her crying child during a session, and a nurse who was walking through an insurance quote in a break room on her 15 minute break. They were both working in conditions that weren’t ideal for research, but those sessions made Sonya really feel for the way the people she was talking to would interact with the products in real life.

The other thing about remote? It usually takes place on the participant’s device. The laptop they use for work or the phone that never leaves their hand. Those things usually have password managers, bookmarks, other programs installed, all kinds of things that they can use to complete the task at hand. These play a role in how people will interact with the product or service in real life and it’s helpful to learn about them, too.

Tools for better remote research

There are so many tools you can use to get your remote research done right, but there are a few favorites Sonya mentioned using all the time. For video conferencing, she usually uses Zoom. It’s backup call-in feature and smooth screen sharing make it accessible for her participants. The option to record the entire session makes it easy for Sonya to go back and review sessions easily. For prototyping and wireframes, she usually uses Axure. She’s found it works well for all kinds of mockups. For compiling all her insights and sharing them with her team, she’s found GSuite works best.

You, however, should choose whichever tools work best for you. I’ll go through a quick list of some of the most popular tools right now, but if you want the full run-down, check out this list of research tools from our Field Guide.

Video Conferencing Tools

The User Interviews team on a Zoom call

Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans

Usability Testing Tools

A Lookback researcher view

Lookback, Userlytics, UsabilityHub, Optimal Workshop, Loop11

Wireframing & Prototyping Tools

Axure's prototyping tool.

Invision, Balsamiq, Axure, Sketch, Marvel

Recruiting Tools

The new User Interviews workspace in action.

User Interviews, Validately, Respondent, UserZoom, Ethnio

Tips to be your best remote researcher self

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare!

Preparation is key in any kind of research, but once you have a template for a particular study type, you’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting.

If you’re setting up an unmoderated task, you’ll have to set up the test, source your participants, and lay out your instructions for the task. If your task is unmoderated, it’s important that your instructions or guidelines are very clear, since you’ll never actually speak to the user.

If you’re setting up moderated research, you’ll need to create your moderator guide, find your participants, and check to make sure everything’s ready to go with your video conferencing or screen sharing software. If there’s something to download, make sure you let the participants know ahead of time so they’ll be prepared right from the start. Shameless plug: User Interviews makes this communication with participants really easy. You may also want to work in a few minutes of buffer time before and after your research sessions for technical difficulties.  

2. Hit record

In remote research, always record your sessions when possible. Not only does this allow you to look back on your sessions and take more detailed notes, it also means you can show the actual user’s experience to stakeholders when you present your findings.

Sonya loves to show the videos to stakeholders in full-day workshops. She gets everyone involved in the product in a room, then shows them recordings of all the sessions she and her team have done. Then they take notes, find common themes, and start brainstorming about how to best apply their findings. Sonya said this was her absolute favorite way to do note-taking, because it allows the teams behind the product or service to draw their own conclusions. This way, the team gains empathy for their users and is able to come to less biased conclusions.

3. Have a backup plan

In fact, have two backup plans. And then three more after that. As with in-person research, remote research can sometimes go awry. As a remote researcher, Sonya’s become really good at troubleshooting technical problems. Using a tool like Zoom, with a call-in option as a backup, is helpful for some users. Sonya said she has even had to allow users to complete usability tests by giving them access to her screen when she couldn’t see theirs.

When planning your remote research, have a few other tools in your back pocket so you’re prepared if things go wrong. If Zoom’s not working, be prepared to use the backup call-in function, or switch to Skype or Google Hangouts. If you can’t see their screen, something like LogMeIn could allow them to use yours.

In any case, add on some buffer time before and after your sessions just in case things don’t go as planned. Usually 15 minutes is enough to account for any technical difficulties and give you time to relax before the next session. If there aren’t any technical difficulties, awesome! You can use the time to take some notes and jot down your immediate impressions while they’re still fresh in your mind.

4. Tailor your scenarios to your participant

Sonya doesn’t like to use her rapport-building time to talk about the weather. Instead, she asks participants about the last time they were in a similar scenario to the one she’s trying to learn about. That way, she can tailor the questions and scenarios she provides to reflect the participant’s real life. This allows Sonya to establish rapport with the participants, while helping her accurately answer her research questions. Win win!

Carrie Boyd
Former Content Writer at UI

Carrie Boyd is a UXR content wiz, formerly at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.

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