Once simply an idea, remote data gathering is now a very important reality in UCD (user-centered design) work. However, there are some challenges, particularly when your agency serves the entire nation and all of the groups in it. Identifying and finding solutions for these issues will help you best use this important tool.
One of the most difficult problems is that you don’t have physical access to your users. In some cases, this is just the way it is—it’s basically impossible to try and observe everyone doing everything. So, how can you use technology to leverage what access you need? Work smarter, not harder, and be prepared by planning as much as you can before you begin.
It’s hard to plan for everything, so leaving room for flexibility is very important—you will more than likely need several alternative ways to communicate. Nothing ever goes entirely as planned—remember to document what you do, and what does/doesn’t work. This information is very helpful in debriefs and planning for future activities. Refer to your scope agreement frequently to keep things focused on the task at hand.
Your first task is to identify your users, and where they are. You may (will) develop different questions for different populations and/or locations. Doing research up-front is vital. Ask your project sponsors for this info, and communicate any important information to them clearly and frequently. Using data analytics can help you to focus in on specific areas.
Next, consider how you can best communicate with your users—if they are federal employees you can count on the fact that they will have access to email, and will have at least sporadic access to the Internet (think remote/Web-based surveys). If you need to see screens you may find using a screen-sharing tool helpful. Keep in mind privacy issues (PII) and anyone using assistive technology—again, being flexible will help so that unexpected challenges do not turn into roadblocks.
If you are trying to reach the public you can’t count on anything really, so keep things as generic as possible. For instance, some people may not have access to desktop computers so any kind of survey needs to be flexible. Everything you use to communicate with them needs to be responsive. Also, folks may not be immediately available—this type of remote access allows your users to complete surveys when they have time. Most tools have built-in reminder functions that make things much easier.
You can also use this type of remote information gathering as an opportunity for recruiting—for example, allowing a person to self-select for more in-depth feedback (interviews, evaluations, etc.).
One thing that is very important to work into your approach is that anyone using assistive technology needs to be able to access/use whatever tool you are using–make sure any technology you use is 508 compliant.
Keep your questions simple at first, and then build complexity—you don’t want to scare users off. Knowing who your users are will help you to come up with specific questions relevant to them—this can be helpful, especially with language questions. Remember: one size will NOT fit all—finding a local/regional contact is really helpful in terms of prep, as well as helping to fine-tune wording. Remember to stay flexible.
Keep wording very basic and unambiguous, both for the people you are trying to contact and your clients. Every question asked should have a goal. If you are dealing with multiple languages, automatic translations are often poor at best, offensive at worst–know who you are trying to reach.
Keep in mind that talking to your users, in the environment they are accessing your information, is the only real deal—presenting remotely-gathered information should always make this clear. It can help you identify risk, as well as help to justify travel/access requests. Of course, travel may not be an option, and access can be a challenge, (privacy, PII, etc…) but remote evaluation can be very helpful.
You can learn more about remote testing on Usability.gov.
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