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‘Shoes Off Design’: Face-to-face vs remote engagement in Human Centred Design

While designing an app for parents with children between the ages of 0-2 in Liverpool, we booked a prototype testing engagement session booked with parents at a children’s centre. Personally, this was one of my first sessions working with the company and I didn’t really know what to expect. So with devices ready and a notepad in hand, I entered the room ready to give everyone a formal greeting and reel off a mental script about the app and what it does. To my surprise, sat down on the floor already were the mums and dads with their kids, playing. At this point it only seemed natural to join them, so the shoes came off and we sat down for a play and a chat about the product.

The important thing about this story is that it’s all about getting comfortable with our users. We didn’t want to come across as the ‘techy’ interviewer guys, coming in to talk in detail the ins and outs of a new app. Instead we formed a real connection with the parents (and their babies) and got some awesome engagement and feedback out of it.

Whatever field you are in, the HCD (Human Centred Design) process naturally has one common denominator: humans! Talking, interacting, laughing, creating – it is so important to be engaged with somebody in order to better understand their needs.

Digital product design involves interfaces and their specific elements which are governed by a huge variety of different users: older, younger, male, female, public and professional. With such a wide range, the success of these interfaces is hard to determine without meaningful engagement with individual users. You can find data to support any group of users but every one is unique, so real engagement is key.

Different stages of the HCD process require different sessions and approach. For example, in the discovery stage, a session may be more about asking lots broad questions and allowing for people to talk openly to gain a wide array of answers, but always pertaining to the project scope. Questions and cues can be used in tandem, such as “in an ideal world how would tech help you?” followed by “can you elaborate on this?” prompts. We should always try to dig deeper and ask ‘why’ to really gain the motivations behind the insight. Further down the line in the development stage where testing prototypes are concerned, it could require setting up tests such as A/B, or a ‘show me, tell me’ session, with certain stricter navigation for users to follow, as we have assumptions at this stage which need to be tested. Preparing the right session for the right process stage is key.

What does meaningful engagement look like normally, and does it differ during these testing times? How can we adapt to still produce products that will add significant value to a user, and one that they will love? This article will cover the importance of getting stuck in with users both face-to-face and remotely, comparing ways and techniques in which we can gain meaningful user interactions and insights.

Face-to-Face Engagement

At Damibu we are firm believers in the importance of the engagement sessions we host. As previously mentioned, each stage of the HCD process requires a slightly different approach, whether it’s 1-1 interviews, focus groups, co-creation or product testing.

It’s important to make the most of being face-to-face with users when you have this luxury, to create a more personal experience, so the user feels acknowledged and listened to. This is because there are certain things that in-person engagement allows that remote does not (and vice versa). It’s important to recognise the value of things like bringing along snacks or treats for participants, being able to involve everyone in a group and creating fun activities for people, in order to help create a relaxed atmosphere. Some of the best sessions and insights we have had have been working with parents of young children, sat on the carpet chatting and playing – leading to really open and honest insights, which we couldn’t have gathered via secondary research: shoes off design, quite literally!

The relationships formed during these sessions are as important as the insights gathered. As designers we spend a lot of our time trying to get inside a user’s head, so face-to-face engagement is the chance to really get to know who you are designing for. We think of it as a great opportunity to form lasting relationships.

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Remote Engagement

How does this experience look remotely? Thankfully, technology allows us to keep the meaningful interactions the result from working with users. Things like video calls, online prototyping, screen sharing and session recording are all great tools which have allowed us the ability to facilitate. Yet, although the environment of a session can be replicated well, naturally there are still differences. Here are some things we’ve noticed about engaging remotely:

Good:

  • Being able to access more people than usual
  • Less crazy commutes
  • People are at home, so they’re a little less formal

Not so good:

  • Key visual cues missed that could have been used to direct the session
  • People scheduling like mad means they have back-to-back meetings, so are overworked and sessions have stricter timelines
  • Group engagement sessions are a little trickier as it’s harder to bounce off people, and again, read the rest of the group when one person is speaking

Employing the right sessions at the right stage of the process may be the same for both in-person and remote engagement, but the techniques used to gather insights now have to be adapted. Things like not being able to greet with touch, pick up visual cues as easily, or bring snacks for users mean that we have to find different ways to create the right atmosphere, which does offer food for thought about ways to overcome these remote barriers. This can be as simple as more of a chit chat to start with; finding similarities like working from home as that’s something most of us have in common right now (and how we find out how busy they are); the obvious weather questions; surveys and quizzes; or video sharing. These are all fun ways of creating the right environment for interaction remotely. It may be different but there is still a huge number of ways to get creative in your approach.

Summary

It’s easy to dissect each way of working and the specific differences, but ultimately both face-to-face and remote engagement require the same facilitator behaviours to achieve the same great outcomes. Rather than ‘specifics’, it’s key to think more about ‘generals’: putting a user at ease, showing enthusiasm and involvement, or facilitating a really well prepared session which has been tested to avoid hitches. You can have a great meeting hundreds of miles away from a user and still feel closer than in a poorly done session when you’re sat a metre away. So whatever the literal distance, don’t design from a distance!