Time-Aware Research

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  • The soul of remote research is that it lets you conduct what we call Time-Aware Research.

    By now UX researchers are familiar with the importance of understanding the usage context of an interface–the physical environment where people are normally using an interface. Remote research opens the door to conducting research that also happens at the moment in people’s real lives when they’re performing a task of interest. This is possible because of live recruiting (the subject of Chapter 3), a method which that allows you to instantly recruit people who are right in the middle of performing the task you’re interested in, using anything from the Web to text messages. Time-awareness in research makes all the difference in user motivation: it means that users are personally invested in what they’re doing, because they’re doing it for their own reasons, not because you’re directing them to; they would have done it whether or not they were in your study.

    Consider the difference between these two scenarios:

    1. You’ve been recruited for some sort of computer study. The moderator shows you this online map Web app you’ve never heard of, and asks you to use it to find some random place you’ve never heard of. It’s This task is a little tricky, but since you’re sitting in this quiet lab and focusing–and they’re not going to let you can’t collect your incentive check and leave until you finish–you figure it out eventually. Not so bad.

    2. You’ve been planning a family vacation for months, but you’ve been busy at work so you procrastinated a bit on the planning, and now it’s the morning of the trip and you’re trying to quickly print out directions between finishing your packing and getting your kids packed. Your coworker told you about this MapTool website you’ve never used before, so you decide to give it a shot, and it’s not so bad; that is, until you get stuck because you can’t find the freaking button to print out the directions, and you’re supposed to leave in an hour, but you can’t until you print these damn directions, but your kids are jumping up and down on their suitcases and asking you where everything is. Why can’t they just make this stupid crap easy to use? Isn’t it OBVIOUS what’s wrong with it? Haven’t they ever seen a REAL PERSON use it before???

    Circumstances matter a lot in user research, and someone who’s using an interface in real life, for real purposes, is going to behave a lot differently–and give more accurate feedback–than someone who’s just being told to accomplish some little task to be able to collect an incentive check. Time-awareness is an important concept, so we’ll bring it up again throughout our book to demonstrate how the concept relates to different aspects of the remote research process (recruiting, moderating, and so on).

    (We understand that as a commercial entity, there is no legal premise of fair use for this image, so we’re clearly violating all kinds of copyrights by using it…)

    Remember that diagram in Back to The Future II? Doc argues that messing with time has sent the world crashing hopelessly toward an alternate reality where things are horrible: the “Wrong 1985.” And that’s sort of what happens when you try to assign people a hypothetical task to do, at a time when they may or may not actually want to do it: you’re meddling with their time, and it’ll create results that look like the real thing but are all wrong.

    When you schedule participants in advance and then ask them to pretend to care, you’re sending your research into the Wrong 1985. If you don’t want to create a time paradox–thereby ending the universe–you should do time-aware research.