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Same methods different approach: Conducting user research amidst a pandemic

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When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, our design research team in Singapore ASUS design center Singapore had to strategize our upcoming user research studies. “The safety regulations pose a huge challenge for us as we often meet users better understand them and get their feedback on new concepts. Despite these restrictions, product development and innovation continue at ASUS. Our design research team took up the challenge to adopt and experiment with various remote user research methods. For this post, we share our experience in conducting online user interviews and diaries.

Methods don’t change but we have to learn how to work around the
covid-19 restrictions to achieve the same result” –Zhai Wei”

Before the pandemic, our research focused mainly on face-to-face interviews to solicit their perspectives. However, there are certain situations where speaking to our users is insufficient to gain enough information about them. Hence, we observe and learn about them through shadowing. By following the users closely, the team would observe and provide accurate information about their daily routine, needs and pain points.

Observing from a distance – Diary study and online interviews

When Singapore went into lockdown last year, we did an online ethnographic study on a group of users to understand their PC usage before and during the pandemic.

For this ethnographic study, the research is broken into two major components. The first would be an online diary study for researchers to get a visual understanding of their current usage. For online diary results to be effective, the researchers knew that they have to be “on the ground”, where they follow the participant’s daily activities closely to gather evidence of their behaviour. The second component of this study is an online interview where the researchers find out more about the users and testing of various concepts.

To streamline the work, our team examined tools that were available on hand and conceptualized a simple and non-intrusive process for the participants to easily communicate and share their daily activities. To keep things simple, we use Telegram as the main platform for the participants to record their daily activities as they could easily share the images and communicate with the researchers. Furthermore, it helps the researchers monitor the participants closely and Telegram offers better privacy than most of the communication apps in the market.

As this study required a high level of involvement from the participants, the researchers ensure that these tasks were not daunting but sufficient to shed light on participants’ usage behaviour. To prepare the participants for the upcoming task, the researchers inform the participants about the time commitments and shared examples of what they were looking for. As with all research, the biggest concern that they face is the participant’s commitment “With diary studies, the tricky part is whether the participants will actually do it” – Brianna.

We came up with a set of guideline for the participants to take note of and that aligns with our research objectives to be included in their diaries. The team came out with the acronym ‘SPADe’ to help the participants remember the various parts of data to collect.

Your Setups: Where are you? What do you have with you? Do you move around in the day? What do you bring when you are out?
Your Positions: What is your posture like? Where do you place, rest your hands/arms?
Your Apps: What applications do you use? What do you always use? How do you lay them out?
Your Devices: How do you use other devices with your laptop? Where is it placed around your laptop?
During the entire length of the study, our research team would follow up closely with the participants while giving the occasional nudge to fill up the daily contents of the diary study. Along the way, we take down notes on interesting insights and findings to construct the interview questions at the end of the diary study to have a better understanding of their usage and behaviour. “One of the benefits of this method is to help us know our users better and allow us to craft more personal and in-depth questions during the online user interview sessions” – Zhaiwei

Benefits of remote research methods

With the adoption of remote research methods, one of the benefits would be to have a broader view of the participant’s daily lives. Unlike the face-to-face interviews at our studio, users were able to move around their home to show the researchers different locations, set up, tools and various add-ons that they use together with their PC. This allows our researchers to have a closer peek into their daily lives that were inaccessible during a face-to-face interview. Brianna shared with us it was interesting to see how some users bringing their camera to move around their home and office to share their experience.
Another benefit of remote research would be the eradication of physical barriers of distance as the researchers could freely meet their users anywhere and anytime from the comfort of their own home. “In previous projects, I could only meet users in Singapore, but with online interviews, I am able to interview users overseas and join the interviews in Taiwan, Shanghai and UK”- Sean

Challenges of remote research methods

One of the biggest challenge the team face was the participant’s remote video setup. Prior to the pandemic, our team was able to have full control over the setup of the interview and testing at our studio.  However, with online video calls, they are unable to control elements such as unwanted noise, limited viewing angles, poor audio, limited video conferencing tools (e.g. webcam and mic) and connectivity. Due to these limitations, it was a huge challenge for the design researchers to read the participant’s body language and observe their actions. To get impactful results, the researchers had to be engaging, intuitive and quick-witted during the remote interviews. “For online interviews, my view was only limited to what the participant wishes to show me…I had to find ways to persuade the participants to show and share contents beyond the video” –Sean

“Some of the benefits of remote research is worth considering; having this flexibility is good as it gives us more opportunities, ultimately it boils down the goal of the research“– Brianna

In a Covid-19 restricted world, the advantages of remote testing become even more apparent to our team. Whether it is during the Covid-19 pandemic or after it is no longer a concern, remote testing is one of the tools we hope to refine over time.

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