apartment building with balconies, where people sit

Remote experience research

April 15, 2020

Experience research is more important than before, as we need to deeply understand new contexts and act accordingly. As a researcher, we have the opportunity to learn more about behaviors and change products and services responding to crises. We have the knowledge and power to act responsibly and care about customer and employee experience.

Nothing new under the sky

We are in challenging times and we need to adapt our methods and tools according to the circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic creates uncertainty, challenges, and rapid changes in all sorts of activities. As a result, companies, organizations, and everyone including researchers need to act fast, thoughtfully and responsibly. Customer experience is getting inevitable in times like this where transformation, rapid prototyping and minimal viable product become the new way of working for many who haven’t experienced this before.

Feeling safe is a basic need for humans. In times that come with a lot of uncertainty and irrationality, providing well-structured, accessible, and tangible offers is key. In other words: The role of customer experience is bigger than ever.
Customer experience in times of crisis

How to rethink your current customer experience among other aspects are discussed in this article on how to stay relevant during a crisis. This could serve as a framework for the importance of remote research as well.

Remote research is not a new thing under the sky, but remote research during the COVID-19 pandemic changes our perception of customers, users, employees – name it as you like. In times of crisis we face multiple challenges in professional and personal life. We need to clarify a baseline and rethink our way of working, our research methods and objectives of the research.

Highly affected industries, such as tourism, hospitality, airlines, certain areas of production and many SMEs can’t proceed with their traditional research process as their main market halted or collapsed. Other companies in telecommunication, banking and financial services also need to rethink their way of customer services and respond to the changing environments. It doesn’t mean you need to stop research, rather find different ways to do it.

Most probably you already have experience in remote research, yet the difference this time is that there is no other choice. The advantage of this unfortunate time is that everyone is in the same boat. We don’t have other choices, only remote research.

Set up the new baseline and start with acceptance

Unfortunately, we don’t have a reset or restart button the same way we do on the computers and the ability to start over again after something doesn’t work as we planned. However, we can set up a new baseline within the research team.

What is the new norm? Where might we reach out to our customers? How might we conduct interviews? How can we work as a remote research team while we do our project? Could we create a research wall and share insights? Could we synthesize together? And how might we deliver our research?

These are all valid questions and need to be said aloud. So start with a kick-off meeting, even if you are already in the middle of your research or bound to finish it. This is a new start, and communication is possibly more important than ever before.

  1. Collect your fears, doubts, concerns, and talk about them in your team.
  2. Talk through your research plan and sketch your crisis plan. What happens in plan B? What’s possible and not possible? What can you deliver, how and in what time frame? Did your brief or research question change?
  3. As a team, agree on a new process and set this as a baseline.

You might already be in the middle of your research and you might need to change your process and tools completely. It might cause some challenges, and take more time than you planned in the beginning. So you might need to restructure your research plan and rethink your research objectives to meet with the current challenges and circumstances.

But don’t forget that doing user research in times of crisis might be beneficial and exciting. As it fosters you to change perspective, to try out rarely used techniques, to practice empathy double or triple times. As a researcher, these are exciting and insightful times. Use it as a challenge and learn as much as you can.

That is not easy, but with preparation and replanning, you can continue your research.

Dos and dont’s in remote research

One thing is sure: You won’t be able to do everything as you planned. There are methods which work fine in a remote research environment, and some are just simply not good and you need to let them go.

Before you (re)start your research project, collect methods and modify them to align them with your changed research objectives. Think about questions like:

  • What kind of technology can I use and what is available for my participants?
  • How can I recruit participants for my remote research?
  • What kind of methods can we use, and can’t use, to get valuable insights?
  • How important is it to observe my participants and understand their environment?

Above all, always keep in mind your project goal and research objectives. Even in remote research, mix methods to avoid inherent bias.

Dont’s

  • Mystery shopping, service safaris: Strongly not recommended. Considering your and your community’s health, it’s safer to stay at home and rethink how you could explore these particular user experiences.

Do’s

  • Preparatory research, secondary research, desk research: If you start your research now, add another perspective to it and look into user behaviors, patterns in times of crisis.
  • Contextual interview: You could do contextual interviews by video calls. For example, have a video call with people while they’re commuting, shopping or working.
  • Co-creative workshops: Co-creating personas, journey maps, system maps with your stakeholders, participants are still do-able online (for example with Miro, Mural or LucidChart). And the importance of customer experience and customer-centric organization is highly demanded at this time – as we wrote about it here.
  • In-depth interviews: With accurate preparation, in-depth interviews conducted by video calls might be one of the most beneficial methods in your remote research.
  • Online ethnography: It might be interesting to look into and learn about how people interact with each other in online communities. If you have already done some part of it before the pandemic, then it would be informative to compare the before and after situations.
  • Mobile ethnography: One of the most relevant remote research methods, as participants use their mobiles to report experiences in real-time. With this, you can gather participant insights and understand their perspective without leaving your house.
steps of a customer journey visualized as white squares
The journey of an employee working from home, collected through a mobile ethnography study.

Mobile ethnography as the current way of accompanying your customer

Mobile ethnography takes advantage of technology and allows your participants to document their experiences in real-time for themselves. Instead of asking your participants about a certain topic, you allow them to do it in their own ways.

There are several mobile ethnography tools available with different structures and approaches. In short, our own mobile ethnography ExperienceFellow focuses on the experience and lets participants document their own journey: Researchers see the data visualized as individual journey maps with various ways to analyze them. (For those interested: During the COVID-19 pandemic, we offer a fully-featured plan for free for two weeks.)

By applying mobile ethnography in your remote research, you can understand your users, their behaviors and environments. You are able to follow more people at the same time and recruit higher numbers of participants for your research.

app interface showing emoticons and categories
The participant’s view on a mobile ethnography study.
app interface to create a new touchpoint and see overview on created touchpoint
Overview on the touchpoints created from the participant’s view

By using a mobile device, participants can document and share anything that they perceive as important. Depending on the research question or topic, participants can share their experiences, daily routines, whatever might be of interest to them, and/or follow a specific research task.

Benefits of using a mobile ethnography tool in times of crisis are:

  • It’s safe as you don’t need to meet in person
  • You can still gather real data on customer experience when and where it happens, and see physical evidence through photos
  • Researchers and participants can be dispersed, which is currently a status quo for everyone
  • It’s time and cost-efficient, which has currently become a high priority in many projects
  • Customers define their own touchpoints (no rigid predefined categories) which can decrease research bias

How can I take advantage of remote research in crisis?

These are challenging times but with preparation and adaptation, you can learn a lot from your users, customers, employees – name it as you like.

In conclusion, we can help you with some of the above-mentioned research tools – get in touch to find out how. This crisis might be an opportunity to widen your remote research methods and experience. And most importantly: stay safe.

Start your own remote research project