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Remote Design Research

What is it?

Remote design research is any research conducted without being in the same location as your participant(s). Sessions can happen in real time, or happen over many days, weeks, and months.

Purpose of Remote Design Research

Remote design research should be considered when

  • In person sessions aren’t logistically possible because you need to
    • Cover a wide geographic area
    • Collect data from a large sample size
  • Research will cover difficult topics that might be harder to talk about in person
  • There is not enough budget to travel or you are restricted from traveling
  • Activities are more effective online

When well planned, remote design research activities can be very effective at getting participants beyond merely answering questions and into the ‘sense making space’, where they attribute meaning and value to their experience.

Activities & Tools

Video conferencing and other online collaboration tools are often top-of-mind when thinking about remote design research, but there are other ways to connect with participants:

  • Offline options like phone calls and mail
  • Communication that doesn’t happen in real time, such as email or text messaging
  • Unmoderated activities where the participant completes a task, such as a card sort, without a researcher present

There are an overwhelming number of purpose-built software tools available for conducting research activities online.

Select the appropriate tools for remote research by starting with your research goals and questions. Think about what information you need and the most effective way to get the information.


  • Behavioural interviews: Will an interview over the phone work or do you need video to share things visually and observe participant expressions? Tools may include:
    • Phone
    • Video conferencing or screen share. For example, Skype
    • Email to share visuals between you and the participant
  • Usability testing: How will you you watch the participant interact with your service or prototype? How will you record their thoughts and actions? Tools may include:
    • Specialized usability testing software
    • Video conferencing and screen sharing. For example, Skype.
    • Email or mail to share prototypes, visuals, or other activities in physical formats
  • Collaborative Activities: How can you use real-time collaborative software like Excel online, Skype Whiteboard, or Miro to conduct interactive activities with participants?

Get creative with familiar tools like video conferencing, phone, and email.

The portability of devices could play a useful role in connecting with participants at locations and times that best illustrate key experiences or interactions with services. Think about how they can use photo or video to show you the context of their lives or show specific situations.

Combine different tools and activities. Going back and forth between online and offline activities can help to create richer insights and achieve higher engagement from participants.

Protecting Privacy

You must always be aware of privacy considerations, both for yourself and your research participants.

  • Do not record a person’s face during remote design research activities
  • Avoid disclosing your personal information to participants when you’re conducting research from home. When setting up your laptop or camera, be aware of anything in the background that you would not want to share
  • If participants will share their screen, warn them in advance to close any browsers or documents that have sensitive information
  • If you are sharing your screen, make sure no sensitive information is visible

Whatever software tools you choose, make sure to check with your Ministry Privacy Officer.

Planning Remote Research Activities

Think about more than the software tools when planning remote research activities. Consider other factors that will allow the session be effective and run smoothly.

  • Practice inclusive recruitment
  • Make activities as accessible as possible
  • Plan extra time to test tools and activities
  • Make sure participants are set up and comfortable with the tools before the session begins. Conduct walk throughs or demos if necessary
  • Have extra facilitators to handle any technology issues and make sure everything is being captured or recorded
  • Plan more time at the beginning to introduce the activities, tools, and ground rules for remote engagement. Regular social cues might be harder to pick up on. For example, when is it someone’s turn to talk?
  • Take more time for breaks during the session. It’s more tiring to be on a 2 hour video call than doing in person activities for 2 hours
  • Keep sessions as short as possible. Break them into multiple shorter sessions to reduce screen fatigue

Make Remote Research Accessible

Remote and online research activities might create accessibility barriers for

  • Remote communities that have low internet bandwidth
  • People with low tech literacy
  • People with disabilities, like hearing loss or visual impairment

If this is a concern for your research

  • Ask potential participants if they have anyone that might be able to provide tech support before or during the session
  • Plan remote research activities that do not place as much of a technology burden on participants (see research activities section for more ideas)
  • Review the guidelines for holding accessible meetings