Motivations, desires and needs – is it possible to observe them online?

As soon as you walk into the house, they hit you: shoes wherever you look. Small shoes, big shoes, running shoes, high-heeled shoes. Big family? Disorganised? In the corner, you spot a pile of roller skates, hockey sticks and hiking boots. Sporty? The cat gets unceremoniously shooed off the table and the hostess asks if you’d like a cappuccino, espresso or latte. Or perhaps a fresh mint tea?

These first few moments offer you so many first impressions and priceless starting points for a more meaningful conversation. But what if visiting your client isn’t an option (as is probably the case in this corona period)?

How does generative research actually work online?

An interview via Skype, a diary study via ExperienceFellow, group chats via online fora or a study via WhatsApp. There’s a huge range of digital tools available to enable you to engage in a remote conversation with end-users. Take a look at this practical report by Sarah Rink on how to perform user research online.

But can you obtain enough useful insights simply via the screen? How can you be sure you’re not missing out on depth and nuance? During the UXinsight Meetup March 31, in collaboration with 17 researchers, we studied the pros and cons of online generative.

Generative research helps us identify, amongst other things, people’s attitudes, desires, needs and motivations. So this isn’t the same as evaluative research, where we test the user-friendliness of a solution.

Are you losing too much context?

You can learn a lot about people just by observing their environment. If you want to learn more, check this out: Snoop – what your stuff says about you by Sam Gosling.

Online research doesn’t offer you the possibility to take a look into a participant’s space. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you asking them to send you photos or films, but it’s still the participant who decides what you get to see. You won’t see the Post-its stuck to the fridge or the photos on the mantlepiece.

Don’t be fooled – people with a cluttered desk are often very structured in their heads

Tip 1 – Use sensitizing tools to learn more about the context

Sensitizing tools are ideal for revealing information that is latently present: Give participants daily assignments a few weeks before the interview. For example: take a photo of your favourite sweater, draw your family on a sheet of A4, ask your partner how sustainable you are, etc.

Tip 2 – Make good use of your time

The big advantage of online research is that you can extend the time period. Ask participants to share their experiences with you over a longer period and odds are that things will happen that you didn’t notice during a visit. Like situations that don’t occur that often. Or that are too trivial to mention in a one-hour interview but are certainly important for the long term.

The big advantage of online research is that you can extend the time period.

But isn’t online research far too subjective?

The tricky thing about generative research is that you’re looking for unconscious triggers and behaviour. Which is why, as a researcher, you want to observe the behaviour as much as possible –within the context, so that you can see which factors may be playing a role.

The moment participants start to register their behaviour themselves, for example, in a diary, they’re the ones who determine what’s important. And that’s when the unconscious factors will go unnoticed.

But let’s be honest: even when the researcher is on a field visit, there’s no guarantee they’ll get an accurate picture of all the relevant factors. Maybe his house was normally a mess, but the participant took the trouble to tidy up especially for the visit. Maybe she tells you she doesn’t have time to watch TV, but in reality she’s binge-watching every evening.

Tip 3. Extend objectivity through data

Whether you do research online or in person, it’s vital to substantiate your qualitative findings with data wherever possible.

Philips Health calls this data-enabled design. In addition to diaries and interviews, they use sensors installed in the home to learn more about people’s health. For example: how often does the deep fat fryer get used? How much does someone move around? Jos-Marien Jansen will talk about this method at UXinsight 2020.

Spotify researchers Colette Kolenda and Krystie Savage use simultaneous triangulation: they also ask the participant to keep a diary, while at the same time measuring their behaviour on Spotify.

How do you obtain sufficient depth of meaning?

In a personal interview, you take the time to put the participant at ease. You adapt your non-verbal behaviour to the situation. You create trust. In the interview you either ask probing questions or you build things up slowly.

This is harder to achieve online: you don’t have the non-verbal clues to help you. On top of that, people have a shorter attention span in front of a screen, which means that an online interview may not last as long.

Tip 4. Take your time to build a bond

So it’s even more important to prepare thoroughly and build a relationship of trust. For every participant during a three-week study, the first thing Ruth Bloem, UX researcher at DUO, did was to plan in a personal preliminary interview via Skype. Additionally, she gave the participants her mobile number so that they could ask her questions throughout the three-week period.

The longer period enables you to take a little more time to build up trust, making the participant more willing to share information.

Tip 5. Allow peers to share information with each other

You can get participants to share their experiences individually with you, but you can also do that in the context of a group. I’ve had some really positive experiences with WhatsApp groups: you invite a group of 8-10 participants – people who have something in common – to join a WhatsApp group. Just as with diary research, you ask them to share their experiences daily, but the difference here is that they can read each other’s experiences and can respond to them. After a week or so, you will typically see participants becoming increasingly active and they will start asking each other questions. Sometimes, as a researcher, you don’t have to do much more than that.

Tip 6. And don’t underestimate the value of anonymity

Let’s suppose you want to do research into how people respond to being in debt, or how an app can help people with obesity. These are highly personal topics, so as a researcher you need to be extra alert to socially desirable answers or cognitive biases.

Remote research can help avoid this. Participants will feel just that little bit freer to share personal information if there’s some distance between you as researcher and them as participant.

Online research, worth a closer look after all?

The experiences with online research of the researchers in our meetup are predominantly positive. It requires a little more lead time and solid preparation, but online research can also tell you a lot about the context of your users, about their wishes, needs and motivations. So it’s certainly a useful way of conducting research if, for whatever reason, you’re not physically able to enter your client’s environment.

What are your experiences with online research? Tell us about your tips and tricks in the comments.

Karin den Bouwmeester (she/her)

Karin is the founder of UXinsight. With over 20 years of hands-on research experience, she’s determined to help the research community grow to a mature level. She loves to connect UX researchers from all over the world and facilitating user research training and workshops.

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