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Combining onsite and remote user interviews

For a recent project, I had the opportunity to start with an initial user research phase. The project involved a complex internal application for a bank, so it was essential to acquire domain knowledge through research first.

We were really excited to finally do onsite interviews again. In the previous years, remote user interviews were the dominant way of research due to the pandemic.

Sculpture saying "Understanding" in Kopenhagen, Denmark. A metaphor for understanding users by conducting remote user interviews. Photo by Zuzana Ruttkay
Understanding users is crucial for creating valuable products (Photo by Zuzana Ruttkay on Unsplash)

Since the interviewees were distributed across our client‘s enterprise and the country, we knew from the start that we could only do a handful of interviews in-person. This project was an opportunity to combine onsite and remote user interviews.

In this short blog post, I want to outline their differences – and our learnings from combining them.

Complex expert domains require extensive user research

Understanding users and what they are trying to achieve is crucial for creating valuable products. So, rather than guessing how users might think or behave, we need to go out to speak to them and observe their needs and behaviours first-hand.

This is always a good idea. But for some projects, it’s even more inevitable than for others:

  • Projects that require specific, complex domain knowledge
  • Projects involving products for highly specialized users
  • Projects with unclear goals or starting points

Just to name a few. I’ve written a blog post about starting projects with an extensive user research phase for more information on the topic.

Meeting interviewees in person is the preferred way of conducting user research, but it’s not always an option.

The differences of onsite and remote user interviews

Wether we can meet with people in-person to do an interview, or reach out to them online: both ways have some specific advantages and disadvantages.

Onsite interviews

Meeting people in person, usually in their home or work environment for conducting an interview and observation:

  • It feels more personal and natural to speak to people in-person
  • Ideal to get insights into the person‘s surroundings – like office or work settings and habits … which can tell a lot besides the mentioned information
  • Acquire valuable „incidental“ answers and additional information via gestures, notions, reactions etc.
  • For performing user tests, this setting can be much more „realistic“ since you can simulate a more accurate test situation – without being distracted by conference software in between
  • Preparing and organizing on-site interviews can be quite time consuming

Onsite interviews might not be possible, when interviewees are located far away or in a lot of different places.

Remote interviews

Using telephone or video calls to conduct a user interview and observation:

  • Usually easy to arrange and facilitate since no physical meeting is required
  • Suitable for interviewees located far away
  • Easy to record the interview/test through conference software
  • Easy to facilitate a larger number of interviews in a short time span
  • You don‘t need to worry about setting up for the interview at another place
  • Pandemic-proof since no physical contact involved

One of the biggest drawbacks with remote user interviews is what gets lost in transmission (gestures, facial expressions …).

It may also feel more “unnatural” to do an interview via a remote connection. Also, there’ll always be a technical communication layer in between which can create unrealistic test situations.

Combining research methods

The comparison of research methods shows that choosing the right method requires careful planning depending of the nature and context of the project.

Combining onsite and remote user interviews may not make sense in every situation. With usability tests for instance, having the exact same test setting can be crucial. With different research methods, the setting would be different and hinder real comparability.

In our case, we were able to combine onsite and remote user interviews, because the main goal was a high level understanding of user behavior and needs.

Combining the two approaches gave us the opportunity to have in-person interviews with people close to our work place, while remote user interviews enabled us to speak to people in other provinces or even abroad.

Using Microsoft Teams in user research – how the pandemic made interviews much easier

While I’m not the biggest fan of Microsoft Teams in general, I was overwhelmed by the benefits for easy user interview documentation.

The pandemic marked the breakthrough of Microsoft Teams in corporate communication – and made documenting user interviews much easier.

Before the pandemic, preparing for an interview appointment and setting up computers for a user interview/observation required much more planning and effort. As we used to conduct most interviews onsite and within our clients’ offices, we had to prepare a computer there and often even had to install software for screen recording, in order to document the session.

Screenshot from a Microsoft Teams recording of a remote user interview
Using Microsoft Team’s recording feature made conducting on-site and remote user interviews (as in the picture) easy. Its hazzle-free audio and screen recordings were available right after the interview.

With the present de facto monopoly of Microsoft Teams in corporations, screen sharing and recording has become very easy. Also, people have become used to using Microsoft Teams and the screen sharing feature during the pandemic.

Thanks to this development, in our latest user research session we didn’t have to bother with preparing the technical infrastructure for the interview. In fact, Microsoft Teams was very useful for conducting both onsite as well as remote user interviews:

  • For remote interviews, a Microsoft Teams appointment was “the place” of the interview
  • For onsite interviews, we also set up a Microsoft Teams appointment and connect with our own laptop at the interview venue along with the interviewee, using their own computer
  • In both cases, after getting the client’s consent, we would use Microsoft Team’s recording feature to get a full screencast and audio recording of the interview
  • This made using additional screen recording software or other recording devices obsolete
  • Important: We used our own Teams accounts to schedule the interview appointments, so that we could directly trigger and receive the session recording

I’d never have thought to praise Microsoft Teams – but for conducting both onsite as well as remote user interviews, it helped us a lot!

While combining onsite and remote user interviews is not the right choice for every project, in our case it enabled us to get a broad range of detailed insights into the jobs, needs and pains of our users.

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