As you are figuring out your new normal, you have deadlines from leadership that still must be met. You’re likely trying to decide what to move forward, and how. And if you’re responsible for understanding customer needs to create or improve new products and experiences, you might be thinking, “how do I rethink ethnographic research in our fully digital world?”

The good news is, not only are digital tools more available, they are much more accessible and easy to use for the people we are most interested in learning about. We can often conduct just as fruitful of a conversation over a video call as we can face-to-face in person.

For instance, Peer Insight conducted virtual interviews for an international law client with participants around the world where we shared our screen and walked them through a decision tree and what possibilities they could imagine at each fork in the road. This allowed our team to speak with participants from different countries and time zones in a matter of two-three weeks, which would be merely impossible traveling to each locale.

For a domestic, logistics client who wanted to improve the experience for their sales force, we had conversations with account managers in their cars as they pulled over to enter notes or as they traveled from one customer to the next. We were able to capture the sales teams’ thoughts and feedback in real-time, in a flexible method.

If you’re worried about the ability to engage and interact with participants over video, you can actually use a virtual whiteboard tool, such as Miro, that gives you an amazing amount of flexibility to show your concept and collect feedback from your customer. A tool like this mimics the in-person interaction of sharing research stimuli with your interviewee; we’ve noticed there’s little to no difference between the experience in-person and virtually.

Ways to Engage Virtually

One-on-one virtual interviews 
One-on-one interviews over video-conferencing garner just as rich insights as in-depth interviews in-person. Zoom.com is our top pick, because it’s an accessible, user-friendly platform that comes with video conferencing, recording, and screen sharing abilities. You can share stimuli with a participant on either Miro (for more intensive diagrams) or Google Slides (if you want to give them control to move items around, for instance, to rank their priorities or goals).

Diary studies
A diary study is when participants record their thoughts about their daily life or respond to a specific prompt, daily or weekly. A tool such as dscout enables a participant to record their thoughts on the go (via a mobile app) and to video record their live environment. 

Moderated or unmoderated user testing
If you’d like to conduct a user moderated test, you can ask a participant to share their screen over a video-conferencing platform, such as Zoom, and watch them navigate your website, tool or prototype. If you are completing an unmoderated test, using a tool that is embedded in the digital product you’ve created, such as Fullstory, enables you to watch user behavior in real-time without any prompting from a researcher. You can uncover significant insights into your customers’ interests by observing their click behavior.  

Video responses
Being able to collect video footage of your participants responding to a question, versus a traditional survey, allows you to gain more depth in your participant’s responses. VideoAsk allows a researcher to post a question and collect responses all via video.

Why Go Virtual?

While some may argue that you lose some of the richness of an in-person interaction and seeing a participant in their environment first-hand, digital tools today truly mirror the research experience in-person. 

Virtual research comes with a myriad of benefits. Some of the practical advantages include the ability to do more interviews, expand your reach farther than you could physically, and complete interviews faster for a lower overall project expense. In addition, by front-loading your project with virtual research, you can gain enough insights that enable you to design a more curated research track in-person. As a result, you’ll set your team up to achieve the greatest ROI for in-person interviews, making the best use of your time, cost, and resources.

9 Benefits of Virtual Research

          1. Lower overall project expenses: Without travel involved, the costs of the virtual interviews usually include the interview incentives and software subscription costs.
          2. Complete more interviews in a day: Since there’s no travel time in between each interview (going from location-to-location), you can comfortably fit 5-7 interviews in a day. However, keep in mind that there should always be time in between each interview to debrief and set up for the next one.
          3. Immerse more stakeholders: Since we aren’t physically going into people’s homes or offices and limiting the number of researchers, we can have higher numbers of stakeholder participation to hear and see participant responses real time or recorded. 
          4. Easy access to a larger and more diverse pool of participants: If your research isn’t limited by a specific geography, you can even test your research hypothesis easily in different cultural contexts. No matter what, you’ll be able to recruit from and reach a diverse range of participants quickly.
          5. Pivot or change your research stimuli, fast: By making your stimuli in collaborative tools, such as Miro or Google Slides, you can adapt and morph your stimuli on the fly. If your stimuli isn’t working the way you had intended, no sweat: you can quickly make tweaks and iterate your stimuli to maximize the impact of future interviews. 
          6. Easy scheduling for participants: Sometimes the option of video is easier for the participant to fit into their schedule, they can speak over their lunch break or early evening and not disrupt their workday by commuting somewhere or inviting a researcher to their place of work/home. 
          7. Study participants over time: With diary studies or journaling, we are able to study participants over time rather than during one interview session. This is very helpful in getting to know the participant, defining what their motivations and pains are, and determining if a behavior is a one-time or a recurring action.  
          8. Step into their world: As researchers using virtual tools, we are able to conduct observations in moments that are not easily accessible. When we go into people’s homes, we sit in their dining room or on their living room couch, and they tell us about their world. We don’t necessarily get to see that world in real time. But, by empowering them to capture their experiences in video and sharing that with us, they are allowing us access to moments at a different time of the day, which we typically wouldn’t have had access to if we were sitting on their living room couch, talking about it. In addition, participants can capture the stories as they happen. As a researcher, you can actually see what they are doing over time, rather than take for granted what they think they do or say they do. 
          9. Increase your speed to a research hypothesis: By talking to more people, more quickly, you can sharpen your research hypothesis faster. 

When considering ethnographic interviews, there are many modes and methods to use. Both in-person and virtual research are valid and complement each other; beginning your research virtually can expand the research footprint and allow a researcher to derisk their stimuli and research questions first. Then, you ensure that the investment and ROI in-person interviews are met.

If you decide to use both in-person and virtual interviews, they can corroborate each other’s results, whether that means using diverse participants or geographies or a similar research set, it is helpful to see the patterns across methods. Virtual interviews can offer a great deal of flexibility and should always be a tool in your toolkit for interviewing.

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