As a UX research lab in Shanghai, we were specialists in and conducted most of our work as in-person user research in China. In early 2020, we got a surprise refresher course on being agile and quickly adapting to the situation we were all in. COVID-19. We closed our doors from the Chinese New Year holiday at the end of January to early in May and kept our team working from home despite most projects coming to a halt.
The silver lining of the situation was being in UX, digital transformation, and having a team of developers in-house. We knew there was an opportunity to quickly pivot and make the most of the situation - to design and develop remote research tools for our clients to use. During the four-month Shanghai lock-down, we were able to build two remote research tools.
2. Online survey WeChat mini program and data visualization web dashboard.
The iterative process of building these tools and using them in the wild taught us many things about how to run remote UX research in China to a high standard. We put together a list of things we learned that you could apply to your projects.
1. Always over-recruit for unmoderated remote researchOur UX research team has experienced a 40% participant dropout rate from remote recruiting in the first two unmoderated remote research projects that we did. This percentage far exceeds that of on-site interview recruiting (which is normally ≥ 2%). We’ve learned that participants of unmoderated remote research tend to be less committed, so since then, we always over-recruit participants for remote research.
2. Offer participants a step overview at the beginningWe noticed that after we get in touch with qualified participants online, it’s often the case that people feel confused and unsure about what steps they need to follow. We’ve made sending the qualified participants a step overview the first thing after we connected with them. Since the research is unmoderated, those detailed steps can help your participants have a clear sense of what tasks that they need to complete from the very beginning. Trust us, this will make the whole research process so much smoother.
3. Unmoderated remote participants need extra clear instructionsBecause there is no moderator next to the remote participants to explain things to them, research questions and instructions need to be extra clear. When we conducted our remote research on cosmetic AR filters, we asked each participant to upload a screenshot, which shows her/his face trying on virtual makeup products, while also showing which virtual products she/he is using. But we ended up getting all kinds of screenshots that didn’t exactly meet our requirements. So we always tried to state our questions and instructions in a way that can be easily understood, provide detailed explanations if needed, and include a sample picture when necessary.
4. Keep in touch with your participants throughout the research processChecking in with your participants constantly and offering assistance if needed are crucial because again, you are not physically with your participants. We’ve had a bunch of participants who tended to procrastinate on finishing their tasks, and there was someone who even completely forgot that he/she was participating in our research. So, to make sure the research process goes smoothly, we regularly check in with our participants and always try to respond to their questions immediately.
5. Document research-related findings and technical problemsWe are always learning something new from each of our remote research projects and continuously polishing our research methods based on it. We use a spreadsheet to document any unexpected answers or behaviors from the participants of our remote research projects and use GitHub to document any technical issues. We rely on the valuable information that we’ve been collecting to help ourselves to grow and do better in future remote research.
We’ve reached demographics from hundreds of different cities in China remotely since we started using our remote research tools. While unmoderated remote research can't be a replacement for in-person research, it can often be helpful when in-person research is impossible or not cost-effective. When applicable, researchers can also mix remote and in-person research together, to get the absolute most out of the UX research.