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9 Rules for Observing Remote Research

User research and usability testing are much more effective learning tools for your team when the whole team can participate. One of our key jobs as user experience professionals is to help the team and the company better understand their users, so it’s important to promote participation from people outside of the core UX group.

While I strongly suggest you have some amount of in-person and field research, remote research is often the quickest method to talk with users and test concepts with them. An added benefit of remote research is that you can invite a larger audience to observe. (Having a large group of observers for in-person research can overwhelm your participant.)

Here are a few key rules I like to establish for all observers to help remote research sessions go smoothly.

Be quiet.

This is first because it’s possibly the hardest rule to follow. As an observer, you are here to watch, listen, and learn. Think of yourself as a scientist observing an experiment. Every time you make noise, you are potentially polluting the experiment data by either distracting the participant, the researcher, or other observers (or all three).

Here are a couple suggestions for keeping quiet:

  • Don’t bring your laptop. (See the next rule also.)
  • Silence your devices.
  • Keep loud food out of the room. This includes crunchy food, food with loud wrappers, drinks with straws, etc.
  • If you have to enter or leave the room during the session, open and close the door quietly. Wait until the door is completely shut before you begin any conversations.

Leave your work at your desk.

Again, your responsibility during the session is to watch, listen, and learn. You will learn a lot more if you are paying close attention to what the participant and researcher are saying and doing. If you bring other work to the session, you may as well just stay at your desk. Not only will it distract you, it will likely split the attention of others around you. (Plus, typing and other sounds can easily distract the participant and researcher.)

Read the plan.

Your researcher will likely have a specific plan for the session. They may even send it out ahead of the session for you to review. Take time to familiarize yourself with the plan so you will understand the flow of the session. Feel free to comment on it, ask questions about it, or add your own suggestions before the session begins.

Be respectful.

The participant is giving you two precious gifts: their time and vulnerability. Whether you pay your participants or not, research sessions are an investment of their time to help your work. Be courteous and thankful to them for that.

Similarly, being a research subject makes participants feel vulnerable. Even though usability tests are designed to improve software, participants can easily feel judged or awkward when things don’t work smoothly. In those cases, recognize that they are giving you an important gift: new eyes on something you are intimately familiar with.

Show up early.

Going hand in hand with respect and interruptions, try to arrive a few minutes early to give the researcher time to get things set up, connect with the participant, and keep the flow of the session going without interruptions. If you must arrive after the session has started, do so quietly and with minimal impact.

Don’t interrupt.

There will be times when everyone in the room wants nothing more than to help the participant. As painful as it can be, it is crucial that you ignore the human urge to help. Letting the user work through the problem in their own way will be more instructive to your team.

There may be other times when the researcher or participant is struggling to phrase something. While it may be tempting to try to complete their thought or question to move things along more quickly, any interjection could derail the thought completely.

Be curious.

On the subject of interruptions, you may have questions for the participant. Your questions are important and can help the researcher dig into specifics she may have missed. But don’t just blurt them out as soon as you think of them. Make sure not to interrupt the participant or researcher.

Instead, write your question down and pass it along to the researcher. This gives her the opportunity to work the question into the flow of the research where it fits best and to reword it to be more open-ended and less leading.

Take notes.

The best way to help as an observer is to take notes. There are different ways to take notes and your researcher may have a preferred method. The most helpful way to take notes is to separate them into specific categories. The most basic groups would include:

  • Positive feedback: what’s working?
  • Problems: What broke for the user? Where did they trip up or get confused?
  • Insights: Quotes, observations, etc. that help illuminate something about the user or their experience.

Positive feedback is great for sharing with your team and company to reinforce what’s working. Observed problems give you a great starting point for bugs and feature improvements. Insights help you create better personas, scenarios, and mental models to understand your users.

Some researchers may provide sticky notes for note-taking, sometimes even color-coded by category. In this case, be sure to write a single complete thought on each note, with enough context to understand it later.

Plan to debrief afterward.

After the research session has completed, you should expect to stay for some time to debrief with the researcher and other observers. How you debrief is up to the researcher, but you can be expected to compare notes and pull out the most important observations.

Finally, thank your participant & researcher.

Chances are that you learned something valuable about your product and your users by the end of your research session. Take the time to show appreciation to both of them. Thanking them doesn’t cost you a thing and can brighten their day.

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