The encouraging benefits of remote customer research

We’ve been using remote research methodologies for years now, but generally considered them to be inferior alternatives rather than comparable to in-person techniques - at least until the coronavirus crisis forced our hand. 

As a result, we’ve switched fully - at least for now - to remote research methodologies and we’ve found that this has delivered encouraging benefits that may mean these techniques will play a bigger role in the future than we ever imagined.

The remote research of the past

In the past we used remote research methodologies only where the specific circumstances of a project demanded, for example, in response to constraints of distance, time or budget:


For projects requiring research across broad geographies, such as in the UK and US, where travel would have been impractical or too costly. In these circumstances, sessions were typically 1-2-1 interviews designed to assess participants' response to ideas or assets, rather than interact with new experiences.

Time / Budget Constraints

Where we needed results in a hurry, or budgets were really tight, by using unmoderated remote usability testing platforms and testing panels. This had become something of a rarity though, as clients valued more targeted recruitment and the behavioural insights that come with moderation.

 A dramatic change in direction

But then the coronavirus crisis forced us to suddenly change course and quickly work out how we could extend the use of remote research techniques to deliver high-quality insights to our clients for a range of ongoing projects.

Our first task was to run a series of remote focus groups for Vans, during which we were to explore customer attitudes and response to the techniques brands use in email marketing and inform their CRM strategy moving forwards.

Firstly, the practical aspects. We had to adapt the remote technologies we use to replicate the techniques that are effective when running focus groups in the physical world - the ability for participants to meet, break the ice, interact with digital assets, complete live questionnaires and discuss and debate their views. This was relatively simple.

But, whilst none of these elements were new to us and we had focused on piecing them together to create a coherent remote setting - the big question was how comfortable the participants (strangers to each other) would actually be to meet, conduct tasks and interact in this alien environment.

By the end of the first session, we realised that the outcome was going to be even better than we had expected. In fact the remote focus group methodology we had developed yielded three significant benefits over research carried out in the traditional way:

 The benefits

1. Diversity of the participants

Yes, the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves in today, with over 50% of the UK workforce either working from home or furloughed, mean that the recruitment of participants for remote research is much easier than ever before. But that’s not the point.

It was the removal of physical and logistical barriers, such as the need to travel to our London office, that meant that we were able to access a far more geographically and demographically diverse group of people that was more representative of the broader customer base. 

Suddenly we could quickly understand the difference in attitudes between a London mum with two young children, a family with teenagers in Birmingham and a single lad from Manchester.

2. Quality of the discussion

We found that the participants responded better to the format and technology we used than before - a sign that the role video conferencing is playing in almost every aspect of our lives today may have changed expectations and behaviour. It just felt natural, participants seemed comfortable and took things in their stride.

But there was something else. Something about the environment nurtured a mutual respect between the participants, they warmed quickly to each other, listened attentively to each others’ experiences and points of view and engaged in balanced group discussion. No sign of Dominant Talkers, Shy Participants, or Ramblers here.

The result was valuable input from participants that helped us understand the overall response to the questions they were asked and the tasks they were given, as well as the differences between them. Without the compromise we expected.

3. Efficiency of observation and note-taking

We always live stream our customer research activities, whether in-person or remote, so clients who can’t attend can participate. But those who observe remotely are generally passive and the real action is in the room from which the sessions are being controlled.

The impact of everyone involved in the project viewing the sessions remotely was significant. There was a significantly level of engagement between them as the sessions progressed and the shared digital workspace made it easy for people to collaborate in real-time note-taking without distraction, so that observations and insights were collated faster.

And it was ecologically efficient too - nobody travelled anywhere (particularly relevant to us with our international client-based) and with a full recording available to those who were unable to join, everyone can still experience the day, regardless of where in the world they are.

What this means for the future

The results from this first series of focus groups have given us the confidence to continue to adapt all of our other research methodologies to suit remote execution. It means that, as we continue to develop more comprehensive remote testing strategies, we know that - executed correctly - the quality of the insight we provide will not only be as good as in-person research but, in some circumstances, even better.

As a consequence, as we consider the longer-term, when we’ve (hopefully) moved on beyond this crisis, we can easily imagine a world where remote techniques are used much more extensively in customer research, allowing us to generate results faster than before, become more granular in our participant recruitment criteria and expansive in terms of our ambitions for geographies and timezones.  

It won’t replace in-person research completely, where up-close tangible interaction and the ability to capture biometrics add their own benefits, but it will certainly play a much bigger role in the future than the role it played in the past.