Have we forgotten the benefits of in-person research in the post-pandemic world?
I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the positive aspects of a forced transition to remote work for knowledge workers. It’s been over two and half years since the world came to a standstill and work as we knew it morphed into something else. Some of us experienced a life-altering shift, whether it was the ability to live out our digital nomad dreams or increased flexibility when scheduling the things that matter to us outside of work.
With that out of the way, what I really want to talk about is how the drastic switch to remoteeverything has affected user research.
When we consider methods like interviewing, there are the obvious benefits of remote research that were well-known even before the pandemic: you can interview people all over the world, right from your home or office. You can save exponentially on the cost of travel if your workplace isn’t physically close to your target audience and more easily diversify your research sample. You can seamlessly record Zoom sessions and automatically generate transcripts five minutes after you speak with a user. Simple, fast, cost-effective.
For those reasons and more, virtual research has a legitimately vital role on most research teams, mine included. But user research has a lot to lose from this everything can be done virtually mentality if we don’t take a moment to reflect on what we miss when making serious cuts to face-to-face research.
Over the past few years, a lot of research has been done about the extent to which virtual interactions can replace face-to-face interactions. This study by Forbes found that business executives overwhelmingly found that in-person meetings are crucial for building strong relationships. Paul Axter, Corporate Trainer and Author summarized the reasons why very well in The Washington Post: “In-person meetings provide a sense of intimacy, connection, and empathy that is difficult to replicate via video…It’s much easier to ask for attentive listening and presence, which creates the psychological safety that people need to sense in order to engage and participate fully.”
Relationships, empathy, connection, attentive listening, and presence are all at the very core of quality user research that makes people seen and heard within an organization.
Your behavior and attentiveness affect the quality of the data you’re gathering, but the benefit of face-to-face research extends beyond data quality. In many cases, a researcher can actually generate more data through in-person interactions. For a range of research methods, from interviews to ethnography and contextual inquiry, you miss out on a lot of useful context and insight when staring at a computer rather than sitting across from your research subject. To name a few:
What does the participant’s body language tell you when you consider it alongside what they’re saying or doing?
What topics of conversation come up when you’re taking a coffee break? Who is this
whole person, and how does it inform their interaction with your product or their general approach to whatever you’re discussing?
What’s it like to be in the presence of someone frustrated by something specific? What’s it like to be in the presence of someone fired up about the work they’re doing?
How do your participants interact with each other? What do they choose to talk about? What do they get excited about when they’re in a group setting talking about a topic relevant to your research?
Any researcher who has done significant face-to-face research could likely add something to this list. Is it possible to create virtual experiences that provide these insights? For sure. But I have yet to meet a researcher who’d argue that it’s the rule rather than the exception.
At Lightricks, we work with creators who make visual content. Through virtual research methodology, my colleagues and I have learned a lot about workflows, challenges, goals, and so on. But the sixth sense that we seek to hone over time about how to really serve our users is equally, if not more, informed by the times we sit with them in a room and debate the challenges of social media for creators or watch their body language while they struggle to realize their creative vision with an app. That sense gets sharper when we’re heading downstairs to walk them out, and they just have to show us the Instagram post that one of their favorite creators just posted because it relates to our earlier conversation.
Another important factor when it comes to experiencing your target audience is focus. Most researchers know how to ensure no ringing, pinging, or momentary web surfing occurs during a moderated research session—one would hope. But it’s happened to all of us. One of our participants inevitably succumbs to a digital distraction that comes with research taking place behind screens. When you’re face-to-face with your participants, your mutual attention often makes for a more quality experience.
You know who deserves a paragraph of their own in this ode to face-to-face research? Stakeholders. If you, as a researcher, have ever brought a stakeholder to meet and experience users, then you’ve witnessed something truly spectacular. Rather than another interesting Zoom in a day full of Zooms, you’re usually witnessing a transformative experience; not only the acquisition of knowledge about users (which is great) but a certain energy that comes from spending time with the people that they’re building for.
Between connection, attention, presence, and focus—plus extra data points—in-person research shouldn’t go out of style anytime soon. As a researcher, I’ve had plenty of aha moments and generated a ton of actionable insights from remote research. But what the people in finance slashing your budget now that you “don’t need” face-to-face research might not know: there is immense and tangible value in experiencing your target audience.
What I’m hearing anecdotally from my fellow researchers, whether from startups, Big Tech, or elsewhere, is mixed. Some teams are exclusively conducting remote research, while some have managed to keep up or increase their face-to-face initiatives. More and more, I sense from my colleagues that factors such as global economic uncertainty and the post-pandemic excitement around how much can be done remotely make it difficult to get organizational buy-in for in-person work.
To be sure, research teams have to adapt to economic realities and social phenomena like everyone else. What I’m suggesting is not a complete rejection of remote research but rather the adoption of a mindset that includes as much face-to-face research as possible within the confines of finances, geography, timelines, and everything else that matters to your organization.
Since things like speed and financial constraints differ from organization to organization, it’s impossible to assert what percentage of a team’s work should be virtual vs. face-to-face. Here is my rule of thumb: as much as time and money allow.
Set a goal, and consider it positively correlated with the quality and depth of your research. Even in tough economic times, user advocates (which, above all else, is the job description for a user researcher) should see it as worth fighting for.