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3 ways to manage research projects remotely

At 18F, we have employees across the U.S. Over time, we’ve cultivated our best practices for distributed teams and design methods. Yet, doing research as a remote team is still really hard. Here are some things that we’ve found make it easier.

Use tools like you would in real life

Being a remote team doesn’t mean you should forgo any of your research rituals. It means finding different ways to do them.

Here are tools we use:

  • A virtual room like Google Hangouts or Appear.in
  • Mural or a similar sticky-note tool
  • A collaborative writing tool like Google Docs to develop a report
  • A project planning tool like Trello, Waffle, or ZenHub

These tools almost make it feel like we’re in the same physical room — but it’s not perfect. We’ve been through those long hours of back-to-back video calls and hundreds of open browser tabs.

Take regular breaks, together and separately. Food, water, and the occasional block of time to process what you’re learning make a big difference.

Schedule coworking time

Research is not just for researchers. We believe research is a team sport. Everyone should be involved in each step of the process. To guarantee that happens, schedule blocks of uninterrupted coworking time early in the project and during sprint planning sessions.

You can learn a lot in a week. Use coworking time for:

It’s okay if someone needs to miss a session. Meeting regularly will save you time and keep everyone in sync.

Bring up research tasks in sprint planning, standups, retros, and demos, too. Make the work visible in your conversations and project management tools so your team understands how much time planning, running, and synthesizing research takes.

Research isn’t a “phase” – it’s a discipline and a habit, and it’s not something you can shoehorn into an hour or two at the end of a sprint.

Set up a shared repository

As you’re getting a research plan together, set up a wiki or shared repository to keep your hunches and findings in one place. Depending on the kinds of work you do, you may want to include the following sections:

  • Project plan
  • Problem statements
  • Hypotheses
  • User groups or personas
  • Research goals or questions
  • Recruiting email templates
  • Conversation guides or scripts
  • Findings and key quotes from users
  • Recommendations
  • Background information or reading recommendations

When you share research materials, always protect the anonymity of interviewees. Don’t include personally identifiable or sensitive information in your public repository, unless you have explicit permission.

Your documentation can continue to evolve as you learn more about your users. You may eventually want to include design principles or an editorial style guide. Here are a few examples from 18F:

Sharing findings as you go along will help you stay focused on user needs and keep stakeholders engaged in the research process.

Even though we’re a distributed team, we recognize that not all research methods work well remotely. For example, contextual inquiry is most valuable when you can observe people in their typical physical environment. Don’t skip out on face-to-face time between your users and fellow researchers. It will make the periods when you’re remote that much more effective.


How do you manage remote research projects? Let us know on Twitter: @18F

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