Research Over Skype: Making the Most of Virtual

We had a tight turn-around on a recent project and, instead of our typical face-to-face process, we conducted Skype interviews. People-centred-research is central to our design process and we always craft methods to best set the scene for what we want to learn—these Skype interviews were no exception. While not an ideal platform for user research, here are our key learnings about making the most of virtual interviews.

We tested a number of different tools and approaches over the course of 22 interviews with respondents in the United States. We had a lot of fun designing our methods and experienced everything from cancelled interviews due to internet outages to saying the pledge of allegiance with a respondent’s class (as she talked with us from her classroom). Here are a few reflections from the process: what worked well, general tips, and the big missing piece.

WHAT WORKED WELL

Homework Exercise

We had a lot of success giving our respondents a small task to complete before the interview; something fun to get them thinking about the context and mentally prepare for talking with us. For instance, we asked them to take a picture of the object that most helped them with regards to our research question. This was also a good ice-breaking tool to share and discuss at the beginning of our Skype call. Talking to a stranger over a screen can be pretty exhausting, so getting our respondents in the right mode before the interview helped to shorten warm-up time and frame the research.

Visual, Interactive Tools

We put prototypes at the heart of our process, always aiming to learn how people really react—not just how they say they will. The Skype interviews required a bit of thoughtful strategy on our end as we designed appropriate tools. We wanted to build tools that would work with screen sharing and not get bogged down if an internet connection was slow or choppy.

As our project evolved across the 22 interviews, we experimented with showing scenarios in a PDF format, videos of a user scenario, walking respondents through interactive prototypes, and using sketching in real-time as we guided respondents through an interview tool. In general, simply having visual tools greatly enhanced the quality of an interview and gave our respondents something to react to in addition to our questions. There weren’t specific tools that were clearly better than others—the type of tool was more dependent on the stage of our design process and what we were trying to communicate. PDF scenarios and sketching tools worked well to probe initial research and concept directions. Interactive prototypes worked well later in the process to test higher-fidelity concepts. Interestingly, the sketching tools actually turned into a fantastic note-taking tool for us. The video was maybe the least successful tool, as we also had to explain it anyway, often pulling up a Keynote presentation to re-tell the story. But it was also a great deliverable for our client.

Show and Tell

As with face-to-face, context is still king. Even if we couldn’t physically be with them, we found we learned a lot more from respondents who called us from the environment we were exploring (ex: their home instead of a random cafe). This gave us the opportunity to refer to physical objects or the space itself. For instance, if a respondent mentioned a specific object, we could ask them to retrieve and show us—which in turn prompted a whole host of new questions and learnings. In one of the more successful interviews, a respondent who called us from his phone, switched the camera view and gave us a tour of the environment, prompting him to talk about things besides what he was immediately able to recall from memory.

TIPS TO KEEP IN MIND

Test the Connection
This might seem obvious, but it’s one of those basic logistical pieces that you don’t want to mess up. Run a quick, two-minute test with your respondents the day before your actual interview to check audio and troubleshoot any technical problems. This is especially key if you are conducting an interview with somebody who is less tech savy.

Plan For the Time Difference

Another basic: conducting remote interviews involves time differences. It can be helpful to make a quick timesheet with both locations to support your planning (and I actually scheduled Google Calendar invitations directly from the respondents time zone to avoid miscalculations). In our case, we had a narrow time window during our work day when we could call respondents in the United States. This meant that we created an intense schedule to fit all our respondents, and it also meant that we were interviewing during the low-parts of our afternoons. Even over Skype, this was exhausting. We learned to schedule slower mornings to be fresh for our interviewing, and make sure we had breaks between interviews for a stretch, snack, or even a quick nap. We also learned to do quick debriefs and check-in about key things we still wanted to learn after interviews, but save the longer de-briefing until the following morning when we were fresh.

Allocate Longer Time for the Introduction

It takes longer to warm-up over a screen then when you are meeting somebody face-to-face. We found it helpful not to rush respondents through the introduction — give extra time to get everyone comfortable before digging into the research & tools.

THE MISSING PIECE

Certainly, conducting virtual interviews cuts down on travel costs, simplifies logistics, and allows you to quickly reach anyone from the comfort of your own studio. But there is still a lot of value to getting out of that comfort zone and into the field. Observing what people don’t say can be as important as what they do say. What are their behaviours or body language as they complete a task? How does a context actually feel and smell? This is one of the key reasons the Skype interviews we did with respondents in their context led us to a more nuanced understanding of their process and needs.

We also found that the success of our virtual interviews depended greatly on the way a brief was scoped. For our first round of interviews we were following a narrowly defined brief around an existing digital platform. Our second round opened up to explore more of a context and, within this wider scope, it was much more difficult to really dig into the nuances of the situation and environment.

That being said, we were certainly able to learn a lot from our virtual research and came away with a wealth of insights and design inspiration. As always, it took thoughtful planning, iterative testing, and a little humility that we weren’t going to quite capture the full picture.