“Flattening the Curve”.
These are terms that have sadly become part of our mainstream vocabulary. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the World, countless businesses have been mandated to close their physical doors in an effort to keep our distance from fellow humans to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Consequently, many companies must now have their employees work remotely – a concept new to many, as prior to the pandemic reportedly only one third of Americans worked from home. In these uncertain times, it’s more important than ever that organizations are equipped to deliver the utmost value to their customers despite having to adjust to a new, digitally-focused manner of internal collaboration.
At Paragon, we have decades of experience providing customer research, digital design, development, and managed services solutions to some of the World’s leading companies as a distributed, and largely remote workforce (with employees across 10 states and all U.S. time zones). In this blog, we’ll share some of our best practices for how digital teams can adapt their (1) Customer research, (2) User experience design, and (3) Development practices to a “remote environment” without missing a beat – both in terms of client satisfaction and also internal collaboration and efficiency. We’re hopeful that these tips may benefit others forced to more rapidly adopt this shift in business operations and culture.
1. Customer Research
While face-to-face interviews, contextual inquiries or intercept surveys are a staple of primary research – that doesn’t mean customer research needs to be halted during the crisis. In fact, in the right market and under the right circumstance, there may be opportunities to gather useful customer data while folks are confined to their homes. At Paragon, our experience conducting qualitative and quantitative research remotely has taught us that in some ways, it actually makes getting consumer input easier. Think about it. There’s no need to reserve a research facility, no need to set up travel for stakeholders and subjects, and also the geographic area for recruitment can be expanded. That said, adjustments to research methodologies need to be made.
Below are some tips for adapting customer interview best practices to a “remote” environment:
- Take advantage of existing Web Conferencing tools: At minimum, phone interviews can be performed, but ideally – online web/video conferencing can add to research interviews (by helping identify body language cues and to establish rapport) while also making it possible to do usability testing remotely with screen sharing. Some tools such as GoToMeeting’s mobile app even allow for screen sharing via a smartphone device. Don’t forget to record your interviews if you can – many web conferencing will even do transcriptions of your conversations. Pro Tip: Listen back on your recordings at 2x speed! It helps get through the data quicker and then slow it down for important nuggets of information.
- Use cloud-based Whiteboarding tools & Instant Messaging for data analysis: It’s not uncommon to see a wall filled with 100’s of sticky notes being shifted around by market researchers in a meeting room. Dispersed teams can be just as productive. By recording interview notes in a file share or cloud document such as Google docs, team members have real-time access. Likewise, tools such as Mural, Sketchboard, and Miro allow teams to do affinity mapping of interview notes remotely – creating a virtual wall of sticky notes! Providing your team with an instant messaging tool (Teams, Slack, Skype) for researchers during the analysis and findings stage allows for collaboration and working sessions to uncover key insights.
- Have a plan for “technical difficulties”: Prepare participants in advance with email instructions, install tips, etc. – but be prepared to walk them through the steps if they call in without the proper technology setup. Decide in advance how to navigate calls where the technology isn’t working – can you do voice conversation only or is screen share critical to your research?
Typically, when building journey maps, researchers will meet with stakeholder groups and conduct a workshop resulting in a huge, wall-sized paper covered in sticky notes that break down a customer’s journey into “swim lanes”– gathering insights as to what they’re doing, thinking, feeling, pain points and opportunities along the way. In a remote environment it’s a bit trickier, but not impossible.
Many of the same web conferencing, cloud-based white-boarding, and IM tools that apply to consumer interviews clearly carry over here as well (GoToMeeting, Mural, Sketchboard, Miro). As do the tips for interviewing, team collaboration, and analysis. Here are a few added tips for virtual journey mapping:
Consider a Round-Robin approach or even 1:1 interviews if needed for maximum participation: Whenever possible, group web conferencing is most ideal for conducting journey mapping workshops with stakeholders. Facilitating group participation remotely can be more challenging. In order to optimize participation and limit “talking over each other”, consider a round robin approach where each participant has a turn to add to the map as necessary. An alternative approach is to conduct 1:1 interviews – then have the research team review, analyze, and compile the multiple stories into one overall map. Note that a 1:1 approach will increase your overall research and analysis time, however.
Be diligent about sharing your screen so participants can view the map in progress: In-person sessions allow users to see the whole journey map as it’s being created. With a virtual mapping session, it’s important for the facilitator to share the cloud-based white boarding map in real-time (we use Miro). Make sure to zoom in on the part of the map you’re manipulating as a group and to zoom out periodically for context so participants can see the “big picture”.
2. User Experience (UX) Design & Wireframing
A lot of the initial work in UX design involves sketching. This may be one of the biggest hurdles we faced when we initially moved to remote design teams. Designers are often accustomed to working in pods – sitting next to someone sketching on paper (or a white board) let’s you collaborate on ideas (sometimes in many short rounds) quickly and efficiently. But just because your team is now distributed doesn’t mean you have to lose that “on-the-fly” creative brainstorming. Below are a few tips to maximize your teams output without limiting collaboration:
- Don’t stop “quick sketching” just because you’re remote: Often designers have a false impression that they have to produce “better” first sketches to “send” them to someone. Not true. Pen and pencil still work great, and all you need is a camera to share them. We use IPEVO cameras that can set up over your desk to do a live feed of sketching in real time via video on a web conference – allowing teams to hop on a web conference, sketch and share ideas in real time (just like in the office pods). Cell phone cameras can also work in a pinch.
- Use virtual white boarding tools for wireframe sketches: For initial wireframe concepts, virtual whiteboard tools work great to save pictures, virtual sketches and as a location to combine pen-to-paper sketches with virtual sketches in one place for the entire team to collaborate on. It’s totally OK if they’re rough – the idea is to collaborate on the concept.
- Produce and share high-fidelity wireframes in a proven tool, like Axure: Once you’re past the sketch phase, use proven wireframing and prototyping tools such as Axure, Sketch, UX Pin, Balsamiq or others to create final deliverables that are ready for development.
3. Enterprise Web and Commerce Development
When it comes to web development (and even application support), one of the biggest challenges employees face when moving to a remote-only environment is around ease and speed of communication between developers. Whether you’re working on large scale website builds, smaller microsites, or supporting applications post-launch, here are a few strategies to quickly adjust from on-site to at-home without missing timelines and deliverables:
- Build clear and distinct project development teams – with clear and distinct (and trackable) tasks: Using a process tracker like JIRA is very helpful to assign tasks to team members (and record comments and details as needed). Developers who work in an office environment may have a team “sprint board” on a wall with post-it notes, getting the satisfaction of physically moving tasks from “progress” to “complete”. JIRA boards are your virtual sprint boards.
- Provide project teams and sub-teams with a form of Instant Messaging: Larger development projects may have 25-30 employees that provide some work on the project. Breaking the team into development groups – each representing a product within the website is a helpful first step. Those groups can collaborate via Skype, Slack, or Microsoft Teams or another instant messaging tool – allowing developers to quickly tap teammates for questions, to test, or screen share when experiencing a bug.
- Always ensure developers have multiple tasks or projects in their queue for optimal efficiency: Newly remote workers often struggle with having to wait for an answer to their questions (as opposed to dropping in another’s cube to ask). While it may offer less interruption to drop in a chat or screen share, developers should expect that they won’t always get answers immediately (which can hamper production without a contingency plan). We’ve found that if a developer’s queue of work has a number of non-related tasks or multiple projects – you can combat these production concerns and increase efficiency by switching to another task or project while awaiting critical responses.
While all of these recommendations for customer research, design and development can help get your team to maximum efficiency in a remote environment, it’s important to remember that this transition may present a work-life balance issue for some. Don’t forget that mental health is a huge part of productivity, so self-care is critical – especially during these times of high anxiety. A colleague of ours at Paragon made a noteworthy point on team call this week. He said to remember the acronym “H-A-L-T”. It stands for “hungry” “angry” “lonely” “tired”. If you’re feeling any of those, take a step away or find time to chat with a teammate.
Want more details or to learn more of our best practices to increase efficiency when transitioning to a remote digital team? Let’s Chat.
We are actively creating more content around this topic, including a series of podcasts that take a deeper dive into the topics above. If you would like to be notified as new content becomes available, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or sign up for our newsletter below.