Travel and in-person meetings may not be part of our work life right now, but user interviews have never been more important. My product is used by some the world’s most advanced marketing teams, and we’re hearing from them that there are “pre-COVID” user insights, “during-COVID,” and there will be “post-COVID” insights. They are so hesitant to lean on what they have historically known about their customers that they are asking for data to be separated so pre-COVID knowledge doesn’t muddy the waters in this new reality.

What these marketers know, and what user researchers, product managers, general managers, and designers need to know is this: users’ behaviors, motivations, and priorities have changed as their world has shifted.

To stay abreast of these psychological shifts and maintain empathy with your users, you need to be doing remote user interviews. For those shifting from in-person testing to remote, these tips will make the transition smooth and speedy. For those who didn’t have the capacity to run an in-person research program before, this article will help you roll out a remote-first user testing strategy.

Plan the Right Kind of Interview

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Not every form of user research lends itself well to remote execution, so think carefully about your goals and intention for the research. The best kind of remote user research leverages the benefits of technology to capture and analyze data quickly while not introducing too many barriers to developing a human connection. Certainly right now, the focus should be on understanding the usage and purchasing motivations of users, their habits, priorities, and concerns…not just about your product, but about their life and world in general.

I had no idea at the time how true this would become, but in 2018, I gave an interview in which one of the questions was, “How do you think product management will be in the future? What will be different?” I answered, “Something that will become more of a reality for product managers going forward is a need to understand macroeconomic trends. As we continue to build products for a globally-connected audience, we will need to understand global trends and the impact on purchasing decisions and app engagement. Doing so will require product managers to both zoom out to look at large-scale trends and zoom in via individual conversations with users in their target market.”

This is not to minimize the importance of usability testing and other forms of user research, but to emphasize the opportunities that empathy-focused remote interviews offer in the current global context.

Test Your Technology

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The biggest concern I hear among teams moving research online is the potential for failure in the technology and it interrupting the flow to the point that you don’t get good learnings. This is especially relevant when interviewing users in rural areas and countries without strong broadband access.

To prepare for your interviews, get to know the technology you will be using. Video is going to provide a stronger level of connection with the user and let you see non-verbal communication, but it does take more compute power and requires a faster internet connection. Phone-only interviews are less prone to technology errors but force you to rely only on the user’s spoken answers and are harder to record and take notes on.

Regardless of your technology choice, test it ahead of time. Consider if you or users will have to download any apps or if the tool works in the browser – and which browsers are compatible. Send users a checklist in advance of the conversation so you don’t waste time trying to get everyone connected, or schedule a test session with the user ahead of time to confirm that audio and video are working as expected.

Some professional platforms have tools to do this for you, while the free ones typically offer documentation to share with your users.

Take Advantage of Expanded Access

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Nothing replaces sitting down in someone’s home to understand their circumstances, but remote interviews can give you expanded insight into someone’s life. Ask them to prop up the phone or laptop and watch them go about their daily lives…if you’re working on an IoT product, for instance, think of what you can learn about how and when they interact with your product? Who is around when they’re using it? Where is it located in the house?

For research nerds, this is called “in-home ethnography.” With more and more people getting comfortable with video calls, the opportunity has never been better to get to know your users in their own living spaces. It also allows for remote exposure hours, which are experiencing a bit of a renaissance as a method for improving UX. It’s not as good as watching someone use your or a competitor’s product in person, but it’s a lot better than the nothing your competitors are reverting to right now.

Additionally, remote user interviews allow you access to groups you might otherwise have difficulty finding. Savvy product teams look outside their bubbles for research participants as a practice, but even so, this is usually done in in-person facilities in minor cities. There are a lot of customer insights coming out of Nashville, Charlotte, and Tulsa, but what about Jefferson City, Missouri, my hometown? When remote interviews are suddenly an option, it opens up access to a completely new set of users and can jump-start a research engine.

It’s not only rural users who may get some time in the spotlight as user interviews go online…international audiences are now approachable in a way not seen before. Professional platforms may offer built-in translation capabilities or connect you with live translators, allowing you to talk with previously-unreachable users.

Watch Out for Data Privacy

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Data privacy needs to be a big consideration for product teams conducting remote user research. Different countries consider different information to be private or sensitive, with differing requirements on how data is collected, where it is stored, and what is done with it. You may be familiar with major pieces of privacy legislation like GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act, but always check the jurisdiction of your chosen participants.

Pick a technology provider who handles this for you, or do your research to ensure you meet the guidelines of major legislation governing your research participants.

Share Learnings Broadly

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Remote user interviews offer a number of advantages for sharing learnings among your team. Multiple team members can observe a video interview without overwhelming the participant. There are no travel costs involved, so more people can hear first-hand from a user, and learnings are immediately available to the team.

Video and audio recordings also give you the chance to share direct quotes or video clips with team members to drive home a point or explain a decision. Verbatims anchor the entire team in the user’s experience and help expand understanding amongst team members who typically wouldn’t have as much exposure to customers.

When possible, jot down key learnings immediately after a conversation, and package these up with a highlight reel or video clips reinforcing your points. Share this with your immediate team, but use remote collaboration tools as a way to broaden your message and get it in front of executives and business units who typically wouldn’t see such insights.

Take the First Step

User research efforts have never been better poised to make an outsized impact on a product than they are right now. With massive changes in user behavior, psychology, and ways of working, reconnecting with real people is crucial. Start building the case that it’s never been more important to get a product right, not in spite of but rather because work streams are interrupted, budgets are tight, and uncertainty is high. Then choose your technology, reach into your user pool for people you may not have been able to interview before, and share learnings as widely as possible.