Since March 2020, most of us have had to adjust to working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, many of us worked from home at least occasionally, but working from home full time is a very different experience. For UX professionals, conducting all research remotely while working from home presents some unique challenges. During the pandemic, I’ve discovered—sometimes by learning the hard way—various useful tips for conducting remote UX research. In this column, I’ll share some useful advice for conducting remote research from home during the pandemic—and perhaps beyond.
Setting Up the Right Home Environment
It’s important to first set up the right working environment at home—considering your own comfort, health, professionalism, and technology.
Investing in the Right Office Furnishings
UX research studies often involve several full days of sessions, so make sure you have a comfortable, ergonomic work setup. Even if you don’t have a separate room that you can set up as your office, invest in a good desk and office chair that provides enough back support.
Consider purchasing an adjustable, standing desk that you can set to various heights so you can switch between sitting and standing. If you don’t want to spend the money for a desk with an electronic height-adjustment control, you can get a high-quality, but inexpensive standing desk from a store such as Ikea, with a hand crank that lets you raise and lower its desktop. Get an antifatigue floor mat to minimize the strain on your feet and back, then switch between sitting and standing during the day to give your back a break.
Buy a good office chair that provides sufficient back support and adjustments that let you adapt it to your needs, so you can sit through long days of research sessions without pain. Before making your purchase, read reviews and, ideally, try out a few chairs to see how well they fit you. If you find that your chair isn’t supportive enough, consider buying a lumbar-support cushion to provide extra back protection.
Setting Up a Professional Work Environment
If you turn on your Webcam for sessions, both research participants and observers will be able to see and hear what’s going on in your environment. It’s okay that they know you’re working from home, but make sure your surroundings look and sound professional.
Ensuring That Your Background Looks Professional
Your background should be neat and, ideally, nondescript. If you have enough room, position your desk so you’re facing into the room and your Webcam shows just you and the wall behind you. If you must instead face a wall, your Webcam would show the entire room behind you—which is fine if it looks relatively professional. However, if it’s your bedroom, a family room, living room, or kitchen, you might not want everyone to see all your personal items or other people walking through the room. If you can’t face into the room, another option is to put up a screen behind you, blocking the view of your room.
Some online meeting tools let you obscure your background by blurring it or by using a virtual background image. Try these features out in advance to see how well they work. If you use a virtual background, it should depict something neutral so it won’t be distracting.
Dressing in Professionally Casual Attire
In addition to making your environment as professional as possible, you should also dress professionally. You wouldn’t want to appear either too informal or too formal. For example, wearing a tank top or a three-piece suit would seem equally odd for someone working from home. It’s better to wear something in between these extremes, dressing in business-casual attire. Consider what your participants might be wearing, and dress in clothing that’s just a bit less casual than theirs, so they don’t feel uncomfortable about what they’re wearing or about talking with you.
Eliminate as many of the extra distractions that working at home can present. Give your research schedule to everyone who lives in your home, and ask them to be quiet and leave you alone during your sessions. If you have young children at home, someone else should be looking after them. Keep any pets away from your office, especially barking dogs. I use a baby gate to keep my dogs out of my home office when I’m running sessions, and I ask my other family members to feed and care for them. Because the dogs bark whenever anyone comes to the front door, I put a note on the door, asking the mail carrier and delivery people to leave items outside so they won’t trigger the dogs’ barking.
Setting Up Your Technology for Ease of Use
Ideally, you should set up at least two or three monitors to display the many things to which you must refer during your online research sessions. It would be very difficult to manage all of them on the screen of a single notebook computer. You’ll probably need to be able to see the following:
the online-meeting window
your discussion guide
your notes document
the research schedule, with links to the online meeting for each session
the participant grid showing the details of the participants for each session
the browser window or prototyping software that’s displaying the prototype
your email application
possibly another communication tool that you’ll use to communicate with your project-team members and clients
Before beginning your sessions, determine the best monitors on which to position all of these items. Here’s how I set up my monitors. On my central monitor, I usually set up the Excel spreadsheet that contains both my discussion guide and my notes so it takes up the left half of the screen. This monitor has my Webcam on top of it, which lets me look at my questions and type notes while I’m looking in the general direction of the Webcam, making it appear that I’m making eye contact with the participant. The right half of this central monitor displays the software I’m using to communicate with the clients and team members observing the sessions so I can easily notice and answer their questions.
On the left, another monitor displays the online-meeting window, in which I can see the view from the participant’s Webcam and the prototype that either the participant or I am sharing during the meeting. I can easily glance back and forth between that monitor and my discussion guide and notes on the central monitor. The monitor at the right is my notebook computer’s screen. It displays the session schedule, with the online-meeting links. On the monitor at my left, I also leave some other windows open—such as my email application and the participant grid—behind the windows that I need during sessions and look at them only between sessions.
Reminding Participants to Be in the Right Environment
When you recruit participants, ask them whether they have a quiet environment away from distractions, in which they can devote their full attention to their session. Remind the participants you’ve recruited that they need to join their session from an appropriate location.
Preventing Participants from Becoming Too Comfortable
These days, participants might join their session from work, but many more of them are also at home. Although it’s natural for them to be more casual and comfortable at home, you don’t want them to be too casual. The majority of participants still take their session seriously, but some do things they would never do at work.
I’ve had participants join sessions lying down on a couch or in bed. I had one participant who asked, at the beginning of the session, whether I minded if she smoked. I said that was fine and, because it was a remote session, wondered why she had even asked. When she answered, “Because I’m in California,” I wondered to myself, why does that matter? Later in the session, as she found it more and more difficult to concentrate on our conversation, I finally realized what she had meant and what she was smoking.
Avoiding Participants’ Being in Cars
When you recruit and schedule participants, tell them that they cannot join their session from a car or other vehicle. Some people want to participate in the session during their workday, so they go out to their car to have some privacy and perhaps avoid getting in trouble at work. The problem is that their company’s Wi-Fi connection usually is not strong enough out in the parking lot for them to participate effectively in an online session.
I’ve also had participants start their session while driving. Often, they’re heading to work or home to do the session and are running late. So they connect to the session using their phone. If this happens, tell the participant to hang up and reconnect to the session once he gets to his destination. You don’t want to be responsible for someone’s distracted driving by allowing him to continue the session while driving.
One exception to this rule is for people who work in their vehicles and have a strong enough connection to participate in an online session. I recently had a participant join a session from her car, and my initial thought was: Oh no, here’s another participant calling in from the company’s parking lot. But it turned out that she was a police officer, joining the session from her parked squad car on her lunch break. She did have a strong Internet connection, and she was in her usual workplace—her squad car—so her location made perfect sense for the session.
Planning Your Session Schedule Carefully
Remote UX research requires different scheduling considerations from in-person sessions, especially when everyone is participating from home.
Considering Time Zones
Determine the best time at which to schedule each session, based on the time zone you’re in, each participant’s time zone, and your observers’ time zones. Always try to find times that are reasonable for everyone, but especially for you and the participants. Consider observers last. They don’t usually need to observe every session so can join the sessions that are convenient for their schedule.
Doing research with participants who are in international locations can require that you work odd hours. For example, if you’re in the United States, you might have to get up very early in the morning for sessions with participants in Europe or start late at night for sessions with participants in Asia. Be realistic about what you can handle. If you must work such odd hours, schedule fewer sessions each day—perhaps four sessions instead of six. Schedule days without any sessions between the days on which your research takes place, so you can take a break, have a normal sleep schedule, and recover.
Providing Enough Time Between Sessions
Schedule the sessions so you have enough time between sessions—in case a session runs long, to ensure you have enough time for breaks, to take care of your household, and to debrief your observers. Make sure you give yourself enough time to use the restroom, get some water or a snack, and get away from your desk to stretch your legs and rest your mind. Build in more time than you would normally need for your breaks to accommodate sessions that run long because participants arrive late or experience technical difficulties.
Before scheduling sessions, find out whether and when your observers want to conduct debriefs. Some might want to have a discussion following each session, while others might be fine with an end-of-day debrief, and still others won’t want to have any debrief sessions at all. If observers want to conduct debriefs between sessions, build in extra time for that so you’ll still have time to take your break after each debrief.
Schedule a longer break halfway through your day for lunch and a longer rest period. I also use that time to take my dogs for a walk, which is good for both me and them. It helps me to get away from the sessions for a longer period.
Keeping Your Project Team and Clients Up to Date
When everyone is working from home, it can be difficult for your project team and clients to keep up with what’s going on with your research. Even if they’re observing some sessions, most people don’t have time to observe every session. So keep everyone updated by sending them an email message at the end of each day or by updating them via Slack or whatever communication tool you’re using for your project. Discuss how the day of sessions went overall, let your team know how many sessions you’ve completed and whether there were any cancellations, share a few interesting findings, and inform them of any changes you’ll need to make to the upcoming sessions.
What Will Happen After the Pandemic?
Someday—hopefully soon—this pandemic will be over and life will return to normal. However, once it’s over, more companies could decide that it makes sense to let employees continue working from home. Of course, I look forward to a time when I can again conduct in-person research sessions. But, during the pandemic, I’ve learned a lot about perfecting remote UX research that will continue to be valuable going forward. In this column, I’ve shared some tips for conducting remote UX research from home that will remain useful long after our lives have returned to normal.
Jim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University. Read More