The benefits and drawbacks of remote vs in-person research 

The recent Ladies that UX meetup discussed the topic of remote vs in-person research, and it made me reflect on my experiences.

As a service designer, I often conduct stakeholder research to understand the as-is for people and groups involved in a journey.

Pre-pandemic, nearly all the research I was involved with was in-person. There are advantages and disadvantages to in-person and remote research. There are also occasions when one might be preferred over the other.

In this post, I’ll review the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Remote research 

Remote benefits 

Research with more people 

A recent project required our small team to research with 50 people in 5 weeks. These research sessions were all conducted remotely. We conducted several sessions in one day, which would not have been possible if we were travelling to each participant’s location for in-person research. For projects with tight timelines, remote research can help you research with more people in a short space of time.

Go further – all around the country or world

With remote research, you can go all around the country or world quickly and conveniently without long journeys, overnight stays and unnecessary dead time. As a result, remote research is a good choice when you need to research with geographically dispersed participants.

More convenient to schedule 

Remote research sessions are often more convenient to schedule. In addition, they can be scheduled almost back-to-back, which is useful when you are time-poor and need to get insights fed in quickly.

Cheaper to conduct 

Remote research is cheaper as there are fewer expenditures compared to travelling to the user’s context. Therefore, remote research can be a convenient choice for projects with smaller budgets.

Easily record the session and go back to listen 

Furiously typing away as someone talks will invariably lead to things being missed. However, with recordings, you can go back and listen at your leisure to ensure you capture the depth of the conversation. 

Recording remote research sessions (with permission) allows you to go back, relisten and capture anything pertinent you missed during the live session. In addition, with remote sessions, you will likely have less background noise interference which can hamper your ability to understand what was communicated.

Remote research drawbacks 

Lacks context 

Depending on the type of research, context can be critical. For usability testing, remote research could work perfectly, but for other types of research, understanding the context someone is working in can aid understanding. With remote research, most often, the participant will have found a quiet corner or a meeting room to conduct the interview, which could be away from where their work or interactions usually happen. Knowing/seeing someone perform their work in a busy, noisy, stressful environment can give context to their challenges. However, a remote research session is often conducted in sterile environments, which misses the richness of their environment.

Less choice in who you talk to 

Sometimes people will be presented to you to interview for remote research. Often these people will have strong opinions or will be individuals that were chosen to represent the organisation. With remote research, there are fewer opportunities to speak to the quieter voices or the ones that wouldn’t normally volunteer to talk to strangers. This can skew results. It’s always great to hear from the quieter and sometimes disgruntled voices.

Restricted to those that have the technology to participate

Remote research requires equipment. Some people are less confident with computers or do not use computers in their day to day. This lessens your pool of participants. However, with research, we want to hear a diverse set of voices, so restricting the potential participant’s base can also skew results. 

Restricted in what you see 

With remote research, you are often restricted in what you can see because participants will show you what they want to show or remember to show you. In person, you can ask, “what’s that?” which often leads to fascinating conversations. Of course, you can also ask people to share screens when conducting remote research, but not all work is conducted on a screen. It can also feel quite invasive to a participant to share their screen. On many occasions, someone has shown something on their screen quickly and then stopped screen sharing. To get around this, I’ve often found myself asking someone to open something again or give me a few moments to read what is shown on their screen. 

Participants might feel awkward about being recorded  

People might feel awkward about being recorded and become stilted in their responses or over consider what they say. 

I always frame the conversation around a chat rather than a formal interview in the hope that participants will be more open to a chat. Building rapport at the start of the session also helps to reduce people feeling awkward or judged.

Limited time with participants and less opportunity to go back and ask additional questions 

I’ve been involved in some incredibly insightful research sessions where participants have broadened my knowledge of a subject area. Still, then I have had difficulty reaching them again after the session. It can be challenging to get someone’s attention again after completing the initial research session, especially if they have a full inbox.

In-person research

In-person benefits 

Experience context

With in-person research, you can experience the context of someone’s interaction. You also get to follow them around (in a non-creepy way) to see how the tasks and activities fit into their lives. It’s also easier to pick up on ques, and I’ve found it easier to build rapport and trust with in-person research. Additionally, it’s easy to co-create in person. For example, it’s far easier for someone to draw a diagram on paper than trying to teach them miro.

Ability to pop by someone’s desk and ask questions for 10mins, go away and come back again

You can dip in and out of conversation and interactions with in-person research. It can feel less restricted in terms of ‘I have one hour with this person, and after that, I’ll have limited opportunity to talk to them again’. Sitting in a workplace, especially when you bring biscuits, can increase the willingness of participants to spare a few minutes here or there.

Hear from the quiet people 

I’ve found it beneficial to wander around an organisation and speak to various people. This means I can talk to the people sitting in the corner, the people quietly getting on with their work, the people that might not otherwise be volunteered to participate in research – the voices that aren’t often heard. 

Easier to get referrals for more people to speak to

It’s much easier and quicker to follow the scent when researching in-person. It’s not uncommon for the person you are speaking to to mention their colleague; let’s call them “Bill”. Bill might do the next task in the series of activities that brings a service to life. It’s much harder to get time with the Bills of this world when you are doing remote research. It often takes significantly more time and effort to schedule time with the people you are referred to when you are researching remotely.

Ability to gauge the accuracy of tasks and observe the systems around them

You can ask participants to go through the steps and observe the task in person. However, people, especially when they are a ‘dab hand’ at a task, may not mention a stage in their flow when being observed remotely as it’s second nature for them. 

Items which you might observe as a pain point may not be thought of in the same way by the participant because they have figured out a workaround – In-person research allows you to observe these. 

Of course, you can ask people to go through the steps whilst sharing their screen during remote research, but you’ll miss that post-it note they have stuck to their screen or that notebook they keep on their desk with hints and tips. 

In-person drawbacks

Restricted in the number of places you can visit

I often hear comments that research can be very London-centric, as this is where tech and Head Quarters are usually located. However, whilst working in government, I’ve explored more of the UK than ever. I’ve been everywhere from Inverness to Brighton, Lowestoft to Bangor and everywhere in between. However, all this takes time, patience and a lot of planning! 

More challenging to organise and schedule 

Being somewhere on time and being able to schedule multiple sessions in one day makes it more challenging to organise and coordinate in-person research sessions.

More awkward to record 

It can be challenging to keep up when taking notes during in-person research sessions. In addition, participants often feel more observed when you ask them to record a session, and their interaction might be stilted as a consequence. 

Participating in research may distract from participants work

Although I love to go up to people and be nosey, the potential participant might not appreciate me interrupting their day. They may have a busy day, lots of tasks to complete and no wiggle room to juggle it all. My presence and interference might mean they stay at work late to complete their job. Wherever possible, I try to clear it with senior managers so that the people I speak to are supported and can participate in research without adding stress to their day.

Fewer opportunities to get into workspaces to conduct in-person research 

With increased remote work, there may not be an office to go to anymore. Alternatively, they may only go into an office one or two days a week, which can be a nightmare for scheduling.

I’ve yet to be involved in research for remote workers, but I imagine it would come with its own challenges.


Advantages for remote research:

  • Research with more people easily
  • Research with people all around the country or world more conveniently
  • More convenient to schedule
  • Cheaper to conduct
  • Easily record sessions (avoid missing key facts)

Advantages for in-person research:

  • Better experience of a users context
  • Ability to pop by someone’s desk and ask questions for 10mins, go away and come back again
  • Better access to hear from the quieter voices
  • Easier to get referrals for more people to speak to
  • Ability to gauge the accuracy of tasks and observe the systems around them

Each method has its advantage and disadvantages. Depending on the project, one approach might be preferable to another. Equally, it is perfectly valid to conduct some research sessions in-person and some remotely, depending on what you would like to get out of the research.

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