Remote discovery for public digital services

  • Sam Menter

We’ve been running discoveries which often involve a significant portion of remote research and collaboration with distributed teams since we founded Mace & Menter in 2013. While it’s less usual to run an entire discovery remotely, it’s something we will be doing much more of.

A discovery is a phase of research work before we start designing or building any components of a service. It’s about making sure we design the right thing in the right way by understanding:

  • The things the people using the service need it to do and how they behave around it now
  • The goals of the organisation running the service
  • The broader service landscape

A well run discovery will uncover the problems worth solving

Discoveries vary in scope but always involve user research and stakeholder workshops. Both of these activities are ideally run face to face, but both can be run equally productive when run remotely.

Running discoveries remotely can mean we engage with a more varied range of users with a broader range of experiences. We can talk to people across the UK rather than in one geographic location without travelling and people don’t need to travel to our research facilities. As long as people have a phone or computer we can reach them wherever they are.

Similarly when we involve stakeholders in workshops, we can do this without people travelling. On the last project we worked on people who had travelled from Yorkshire, the Midlands, Scotland and Gloucestershire to attend our workshops with significant travel and carbon costs. Remote workshops remove these costs and take up less time so we lower the bar for participation.

 

The toolkit

There are hundreds of tools available to facilitate this way of working but these are the ones that we find work best for remote discoveries:

Remote user research

  • Lookback.io for remote user research interviews with screen sharing, recording and third party observation
  • Phone calls for interviews recorded via Quicktime when a participant isn’t comfortable with video calls
  • Airtable for research analysis and affinity mapping

Remote workshops

  • Zoom allows us to run video sessions and create sub-groups of people if we want to run breakout discussions
  • Miro is the Swiss Army knife of online workshops, it’s an unlimited whiteboard that allows multiple collaborators with integrated video chat
  • Loom is great for pre-recording presentations that you might want people to watch in advance of a session

Project collaboration

  • Slack for project team collaboration and sharing files
  • Google Drive for collaborating on documents and spreadsheets
  • Google Meet for video calls
  • Doodle for scheduling workshops and research participants

 

A few things we’ve learnt

  • Agree the specific tools to use during the project definition phase and ensure everyone is comfortable with them and has access. Some tools are locked down when people are behind firewalls
  • Use dedicated research software e.g. Lookback for user research when you have remote observers, because this is much less intimidating for participants than being on a video call with multiple people
  • Allow slightly more time for remote interviews to soak up the inevitable audio / video issues at the start of the call
  • If using Google Meet you can reduce bandwidth, add subtitles and tweak layouts in settings
  • Aim to use video chat rather than just audio for a research interview – seeing each other really does increase empathy and help you run a more productive session. But don’t be afraid to switch to a phone call if things aren’t working
  • Prepare research participants in advance around the technology and check they are comfortable

Workshops

  • Have a clear agenda planned in advance that you stick to and divide the session up into a greater number of shorter blocks with breaks than you might for a face to face session
  • Prepare people in advance for the way of working
  • Keep the energy high and facilitate more actively than usual
  • Ask everyone to use their cameras – people engage more when they can see other participants and it helps build trust
  • If you are leading the workshop make sure you have lots of screen space / two screens so you can see people and any collaborative tools simultaneously
  • There are many potential points of failure for sound, so make sure you have a quiet space, good quality sound and a good microphone available

As people increasingly work in this way over the next few months, new tools and ways of working will spring up. If you have suggestions or useful insight to share, drop me a note: sam@macementer.com

 

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