Don’t let distance get in the way of your user research

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There’s an advertising campaign at the moment for Blackberry, the smartphone company, using the tag line “Closeness has nothing to do with distance.”

These days we can all carry our loved ones around in our pocket or handbag using the various social networking features of the Blackberry – including using it as a phone, presumably.

On several web projects recently, I’ve been conducting user research and usability testing with people in different locations (including other continents) using screen-sharing tools like WebEx and LiveMeeting. So even though we may be several thousand miles apart, we’re both looking at the same screen.

An important aspect of a user research session is building initial trust between the researcher and the respondent, so that the respondent feels comfortable and not too self-conscious. This involves an opening conversation, where I’ll introduce myself and explain the purpose of the research. I’ll then ask the respondent to tell me a bit about themselves, and gradually ask questions which narrow down towards the subject matter of the research session.

In person, you can pick up on all the cues available to you, and adjust your tone, proximity, style etc. to find a good mode for putting the other person at ease.

Using software such as LiveMeeting and talking over the telephone (or VOIP) you lose a lot of those cues.

So to try to help put the respondent more at ease, the first thing I’ll do during the introductions is share my web browser via LiveMeeting (or WebEx etc.) and show my profile page. This could be on the respondent’s company’s intranet, or my LinkedIn profile, or whichever seems the most appropriate.

Then I’ll encourage the respondent to do the same, or I’ll have a browser tab available with their profile page available to share if I can access it.

I find this really helps put people at ease and feel more able to “think out loud” when we move on to usability testing the prototype, web app or intranet site in question.

It’s never quite the same as being there in person, but it’s definitely an improvement to just being a disembodied voice at the end of the line.

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