Visiting a user’s environment is a practice that many UX professionals try to integrate into the user centered design process. Traditionally, ethnographic research projects can take a considerable investment of time and resources. By conducting the research remotely, however, you can work around the barriers of travel and recruiting, making it a little easier to pull off.
The terms “remote” and “site visit” often would be considered contradicting things, but they do not have to be. So how can you visit a person’s environment without physically being there? Here are a few tips to help you modify your existing field research method into a remote one.
Tip #1: Figure your tools out first.
Your study format will be dependent on what tools you have available. Make sure you have this squared away as soon as possible. We have found that a web meeting with screen sharing capabilities works very well for people who are sitting at desks. If the person is moving around, a webcam might work. Consider that you may need people to have tools available on their end as well.
Tip #2: Give the person some prep work.
Making sure the participant understands what you want to learn before you visit them is critical. Since you will be remote, you are going to need to rely on them to share their environment with you. What you have them prepare will depend on your area of focus. Some ideas that might work:
- Photo & video assignments: Have the person take pictures or videos of their workspace, themselves, coworkers, and any other relevant area of interest. With the prevalence of smartphones, this is usually a pretty easy task to assign a user. Instruct them upload the photos to their computer to review when you meet or have them send you the files beforehand.
- Set aside work to perform during the visit: You can ask the person to save some work to be done on their computer while you watch them using screen sharing.
- Reenact a scenario: Have the person brainstorm some recent problems or a scenario of interest. Instruct them to gather all the examples they will need to re-tell the story to you start to finish. Encourage them to gather artifacts like screenshots, photos, and emails.
- Gather examples for a show-n-tell: Ask for examples of artifacts that they can share with you. One drawback to this approach is that sometimes you don’t know what to ask for.
Tip #3: Have a quick chat with each person before your visit.
Briefly speak to the person on the phone before your scheduled visit to explain the goals of the exercise and instruct them on how to prepare. It also gives you a chance to get a sense of who they are. This will help you understand them more easily during the actual visit.
Tip #4: Make sure the person is in the right location.
Try to have your participant be in the physical location that you want to learn more about. Be extra clear about where and how you want to conduct the visit remotely. It should be as if you were really visiting in-person even though you are remote.
Tip #5: Build in extra time to get to know the person’s environment.
Leave a considerable amount of time in the beginning of your remote visit to have the person describe their environment. If the person completed a photo assignment, review the images with them using screen sharing. If you are using a webcam, get a live tour. If no visual aids are possible, ask the person to describe in detail what they see around them. Make sure to leave no stone unturned. There will always be unexpected clues that will help reveal more about that person and their location.
Try it out and see: Although nothing can replace actually being in a person’s work environment, hopefully with these tips you can set up your research to come pretty close. Note that you still need some sort of field research plan to begin with, these are just tips on the logistics.
Remote research can open doors to new types of people and environments that were once closed due to travel restrictions and recruiting obstacles. It also makes things a little easier visiting people and never having to leave the office!