Conducting in-context research allows us to see action as it happens – show, don’t tell, in its truest form. But what happens when we can’t be in context in a given environment? While it may not be ideal, circumstances may warrant a more flexible approach to contextual research. Here are three tips from our past experiences conducting contextual research remotely that have shaped our research approaches during the COVID-19 outbreak.
1. Test internet connection and tech savviness
During remote sessions, regardless of the level of complexity, it’s important to make sure participants – and researchers – have a strong internet connection. Whether due to heavy traffic at a certain time of day or poor connection in a certain location, run tech-checks with participants before officially inviting them to participate in a session. Recruiters may be able to help with this step. Request participants complete tech checks around the same time of day their session is scheduled and that they be in the location from which they will be participating. Additionally, it can be helpful to run a mock session: have participants log in, download software, test their camera and microphone, and click on any messages you’ll want them to see during the session. Chances are, if they struggle to understand the software or have internet difficulties during the tech-check, you’re better off re-recruiting to avoid a bumpy session.
2. Get mobile and creative
Frequently, remote sessions are stationary – the researcher at one computer and the participant at another – but with portable devices, we can transform the remote research experience into a mobile session. When possible, have participants use a laptop computer that they can carry around as they move throughout their environment. Even better, if your methodology allows it, use a smartphone or tablet to capture “first person” views of what is happening in context.
3. Be in context even when you can’t be there
Most importantly, just because you can’t be with the participant in context doesn’t mean they can’t be there on their own. If I asked you to describe how you brush your teeth while you’re in your kitchen, I’m probably not going to get as rich data as if I had you go to the bathroom with your smartphone, tablet, or laptop, give me a tour of your bathroom space, and then walk me through your tooth-brushing routine. Though I may be hundreds of miles away, you can still be in your bathroom walking me through the same steps you’d go through if I were with you.
In the end, the ideal situation is to be with participants whenever possible, but sometimes that is just not the case. With these strategies in place, however, you can conduct contextual inquiry without being physically with participants.