The five steps for researching remote communities
If you’re reading this, you probably already understand the importance of user research—but what if your users aren’t the typical urban tech crowd? Here are five easy steps to conducting user research in rural communities.
Big cities, big tech, right? Not always. Oftentimes, companies in major urban hubs are the ones designing and developing the technology we use in our everyday lives, but what happens when the everyday users live in more suburban or rural areas? If we’re not conducting user experience research with the right end user, we might end up with a product that’s, well, just plain wrong. For them at least.
Currently, 31 percent of people live in urban areas, 55 percent in suburbs, and 14 percent in rural areas, which means 46 million Americans live in rural counties. People living or working in rural areas may have distinct needs, thoughts, and behaviors that would not be captured by web developers working in big cities alone.
In addition, some people believe the COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns are encouraging even more people to move out of large cities, especially if they can perform their job remotely.
According to a survey by The Harris Poll, “nearly 40 percent of US adults living in urban areas indicated they would consider moving ‘out of populated areas and toward rural areas,’ compared to 29 percent of overall respondents.” If this shift happens, it will be critical to ensure suburban and rural respondents are included in research to have a diverse set of views represented. Although diversity for research includes demographic and psychographic factors, this article specifically looks at the importance of feedback from people in rural areas.
Here are five quick steps we use to conduct rural user experience research when you don’t live or work in the area:
1. PLAN FOR A RURAL COHORT AS PART OF YOUR PRODUCT RESEARCH ROAD MAP
The early investment of designing, recruiting, and executing research pays off in the end when your first release meets your users’ needs. Make sure to incorporate time to do all of the following steps for each user research cycle you plan to implement. Keep in mind you may need to add time for recruitment if the rural area or demographic if users are difficult to find.
2. DECIDE HOW MANY RESEARCH PARTICIPANTS WILL BE INCLUDED
According to the Nielsen Norman group, “almost 80 percent of the usability problems represented by the selected tasks were found after testing four users.” It is more valuable to conduct small tests throughout the design process, rather than one large test at the end of the project because the end product will have fewer errors and provide a better user experience. We usually hold sessions with 10 people to balance having a diverse set of perspectives and an optimal amount of time on research.
3. KNOW WHO YOU NEED TO GET A REPRESENTATIVE SAMPLE
Make sure you have a mix of people from all audiences who are important to your product or strategy. This could mean basic demographic factors like gender, age, and location. It could also include psychographic or behavioral factors. If you don’t have a list of people (often customers or employees), you can ask your clients for a list or work with a recruitment vendor.
4. GO WHERE YOUR PARTICIPANTS ARE
Research firms are often located in the same cities as the big tech companies. To make it easier for people in rural areas to participate, it helps to travel to them or offer digital options. Video conference technology is often a preferred research choice because it is a faster and less expensive way to talk to people in various geographies.
However, if you have a group of people in one area (like a farm or military base) or participants have limited internet access, it’s great to conduct the sessions in person to build rapport, have detailed conversations, and watch their body language while interacting with the product. It is a better use of time to have your sessions scheduled before you arrive, but if there are not enough people to talk to, you may want to try intercept methods.
5. CONDUCT USABILITY SESSIONS WITH STATIC OR CLICKABLE PROTOTYPES
Depending on where you are in the product timeline, you can either use static prototypes (paper or PDF) or clickable prototypes (where the user controls the mouse). For these sessions, prepare a question guide in advance that includes tasks and open-ended questions to uncover what they like about the design and what still needs improvement. Also, have a notetaker so you can analyze detailed notes for things you might have missed during the sessions.
By conducting research with a wide range of people who actually use or will use your product, you can find audience-specific pain points to solve for before launch. Holding research sessions early and often enables you to make improvements in the design phase (rather than in development), which saves time and money, and allows you to produce a better product.
Becca Fairchild is a senior user experience researcher in the Seattle studio. She grew up in Hoquiam (population 8,500) and now works in Seattle (population 745,900). Becca has experience interviewing a wide variety of people including dairy farmers in rural areas of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and California; military families in North Carolina, Texas, and Washington; as well as engineers and bankers in the US, UK, and India.