Remote user research at the Scottish Parliament

The arrival of Covid-19 almost overnight means moving quickly to a new way of doing things in unfamiliar circumstances. So, how do we go about conducting user research in the middle of a global pandemic?

You could argue that creating websites and apps that are straightforward and easy to use is more important right now than ever. Everything and everyone is moving online and with us all being home much more than usual for the foreseeable future. At the Scottish Parliament, this has meant adapting to our own work from home environment whilst still getting the vital insight that we need from our users.

Previously, about 40% of our user research was carried out remotely. Here, we want to share how we have moved this to being remote only, some of the benefits of engaging with users from a distance and a couple of useful tips as to how to make this happen.

User Research for the Beta site

We are building our Beta site one section or top task at a time. For each of these, we start with what we call discovery research. This gives us insight into how our users currently interact with a section of the site, what is working well for them and what could be improved. This informs our user needs and the design going forward. Typically, it is a series of short interviews with people who frequently use a section of the site. Where we may have engaged with some face-to-face in the past, we now conduct all of these over the phone or screen share software.  

Once we have our design in place, it’s time to validate this with our users with a series of usability testing sessions. During the sessions, participants are given some tasks to work through on a prototype of the section of the site. Previously, the majority of these were face-to-face in the Parliament building. However, we now:

  • interact with participants over screen share software, using GoToMeeting
  • give participants access to our shareable prototype, created with Invision
  • ask participants to share their screen with us so we can observe them carrying out tasks on the prototype and ask questions when we need to
  • encourage the team to view sessions from their work from home environment
  • share our thoughts on findings using Trello rather than post-its on a wall
  • chat through findings with the team using Teams at the end of the day

Benefits of remote research

  • location is not a barrier for participants. We want our research to be as inclusive as possible so that people across Scotland have the opportunity to take part. Remote research means we can access people from all over the country and further afield
  • no travel time involved for participants. More convenient, can be carried out from anywhere
  • participants are in home environment using tech they use day to day. This means a more realistic setting for observing how they complete tasks
  • quicker and easier for the team to organise. We don’t have to wait until suitable rooms become available, we can pick a date that suits participants and the team best
  • enables easy observation and quick collaboration for the team after the sessions

Getting the tech right

Running research remotely does mean it’s really important to get the technology right to avoid problems on the day. Here are some tips for getting the tech right:

  • run a pilot session beforehand. Test the tech ahead of the day and record the session to make sure the sound is good enough
  • brief the participant well ahead of the day. It’s always a good idea to set expectations and get participants to test screen sharing software where possible in advance
  • have backup options ready. We always have a couple of different ways to record, various microphones to hand and different ways to help participants if struggling to enable the screen share
  • have alternative ways for people to engage that may not be able to do so over the phone or using screen share software. Another way that has worked well for us is email correspondence

Our research is always informal and all feedback is really valuable to the work we are doing on the Beta site. Your views will have a direct impact on what we are building. If you would like to be involved, please contact