Reframing the window of remote research

Leah Cabrera-Fischer
Associate Strategy Director
Senior Strategist

Many of us have found ourselves staring out the window recently, speculating on the new wavy future with its kaleidoscope of possible post-pandemic scenarios. When the whole world is looking to what comes next, design research becomes even more of a crucial window into what people are thinking. For Smart Design, human-centered research – both remote and in-person – has always been a key tool, affording us a glimpse into people’s lives and validating our understanding of their latent needs. Currently, though, that window is more likely to be Windows 10, iOS or Android.
It’s an unavoidable reality that some research methodologies are more challenging to replicate remotely. Bringing someone through an environment, observing them, helping them to pin-point and meet their needs has been one of the cornerstones of experiential research since seminal design figure Henry Dreyfuss was building the first ‘experience prototypes’ of ocean liner cabins in an old stable building, back in the 1940s. It’s entirely possible that the research innovation happening right now is creating new cornerstones for how we understand people and their needs.

Are You Ready for Your Close-Up?

More people are experiencing their primary social connections through their devices than ever before. We are all learning new things about our colleagues and friends this year – be it from their color-coordinated bookshelves or their keyboard bombing cat. But while research is currently being conducted 100% remotely, it’s vital to stay mindful that the most interesting, potentially business critical insights could be happening off-screen. Quality remote research is about knowing where to look, what to look for and how to find effective new ways to connect with people and create that trusted bond that allows for more relaxed, engaged and candid conversations. By getting more creative in how we work, we can ensure we pick up on those nuances not immediately apparent on a screen. At Smart Design, we employ a number of remote research techniques that enable us to expand our window of insight and keep our eyes peeled for the sparks of joy, as well as the pain points:

Two Windows Let in More Light – Co-Facilitation and Immersion are Key

We’re great believers in co-facilitating research with our clients – they are the experts on their sector, potentially unlocking new windows of insight that might not otherwise surface. We saw proof of this concept mid-project when we were working with a non-profit focused on increasing women’s access to contraception.  We had created physical materials to help people with their birth control journey, to be distributed in the health centers. The arrival of the pandemic meant we had to shift our strategy from doing in-person research on-site to doing everything remotely. Our client was able to step in and save the day, role-playing a birth control counseling session via video call. This helped to make the experience more immersive for the participants and to contextualize how the materials would be used in health centers. We also shipped materials to participants, which allowed them to interact with them at home, while also showing the prototypes on the screen to increase focus and help us to guide attention to specific aspects of the design and content.  These remote sessions didn’t just provide us with feedback on the materials, they also gave us and the client a glimpse into how these materials could be used in the future for telemedicine consultations – not only in-health centers but anywhere, at any time.

Combining Quantitative and Qualitative Practices to See More – For Less

In a recent, fully remote project we used a survey to gather rich insights on consumers’ preference for different pain management products. We were then able to use that survey as a screener to quickly recruit participants in two days. The selected participants represented interesting trends from our quantitative survey from nine states across the country. Over remote one-to-one video sessions, our participants shared their opinions and the products they use at home to ease their aches and pains. Participants were able to introduce their ‘world of pain’ to us, including an on-screen mini tour of their medicine cabinets.

While the research itself was not too far off what we would’ve done in-person, the speed at which we got there was way faster. Remote research is a great way of doing qualitative research at scale. It allows you to gain access to the equivalent of a high-rise building’s worth of windows, in every key demographic and location. You can be more proactive about how you conduct that research and work faster, all while reaching a more targeted audience.

The Windows of the Soul-Making Eye Contact Count

As any of you brave enough to try video dating recently will know, building rapport and creating a human connection can be more challenging remotely than in person, where visual cues/body language and a welcoming setting can help put people at ease. Little things, we’ve found, can make a big difference. Start with a casual conversation before jumping into the actual research session to build rapport. Build in moments to observe, such as unboxing, to break up the formality of an interview-style video call. You can also make the remote setting into an opportunity for deeper learnings by asking your participants to talk about and demonstrate comparable products they have at home.
Never forget, it’s a privilege to be invited through the screen into someone’s home. Engaging with people in this most intimate of settings can accelerate the insights journey in unexpected ways. In one session during the project on birth control, we had a participant move her web camera to reveal that she had been talking to us with her baby on her knee. This was not only adorable but rapidly informed, focused and opened up the conversation on the mother’s needs and interactions with our materials for our role playing counselor.

Adjusting the Lens to Find the Best View

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that in-person research will remain as vital a tool as ever, once we’re able to re-introduce it. This current moment could be accelerating us to more of a middle point, where we will be forced to combine the methodologies more, helping us to become a little savvier in how we design the research, as well as making us think more creatively about what helps us to better insights. The limitations brought on by the pandemic are forcing us to get there a little quicker, but this work was already happening.
Maybe remote research is better understood, not so much as a smaller window, limiting what we can observe and learn, but as a zoom lens – a rapidly evolving, increasingly effective new tool enabling us, if used with discretion and care, to focus in and connect which each other through the window and analogously walk through the door. Quality remote research is illuminating parts of our inner and outer worlds not previously visible, creating deeper connections across continents. Not so long ago, the windows in the towns and cities of Spain and Italy created deeper community connections when every balcony rang out with songs, clattering pans, applause and all the joy, enthusiasms and mess of life anyone could wish for. Humans thrive on connectivity, shared stories and inclusion. And so does good design.

Learn more about our work scaling creative research methods.