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User Research is the heart of UCD and UX, most of time my clients requesting my job as UX Specialist "Remotely", and I wonder what is the best working methodology to do User Research when interviews the actual users and clients are impossible ?

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    Although it is only one part, it is always important to remember that statistics can often show what users struggle to tell.. – tim.baker Dec 11 '14 at 10:18
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Get in front of the user

I have been working in a distributed team on a global product for 2 years now and user research is a real challenge. But if you can't reach your users your in a rock and a hard place. The experts will tell you do whatever it takes to get in front of your users, demand, sell, trick your way. I have to travel great lengths (physically and mentally) to reach my users.

Proxies

Like others have called out, I look to the people closest to the customers. Customer Services, Account Managers etc. They can give me real qualitative feedback before I've even speak to the user. Usually I do this before I go out to meet users.

Then there are remote sessions conducted on my behalf, I send out a bunch of experiments and a guide sheet for the user researcher to run through. It's not as good for discovering the unknowns but a good research is generally more impartial and less bias than yourself.

Un-moderated user research (user labs)

Try just writing plain text messages to your users in their preferred format to reach out to them asking for feedback. Direct them to experiments, polls, surveys (whatever is relevant for the line of investigation.) There are so many tools available to help you here, too many to list.

Get in front of the users

Its not the answer your looking for, but there is no replacement for being in direct contact with your users.

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Interview remotely

Remote doesn't mean you can't interview folk. It just means you can't interview folk face-to-face. Interviewing people over Skype, Google Hangouts, etc. is still possible.

Failing that (or as well as that) it's also possible to train up people locally to go do some of that research for you.

Interview proxies

In addition to that look for people that you can talk to directly who do have direct contact with actual users. Folk like:

  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Technical Authors
  • Product Managers
  • etc.

Second hand knowledge is better than no knowledge at all.

Look for unusual opportunities to meet actual customers

The traditional screening survey / recruitment cycle isn't the only way of finding actual users. Look for other opportunities:

  • the customer who is flying in to deal with problems close to you
  • the local conference that your customers fly in to
  • the local holiday destination that customers come to
  • … and so on …
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I think you should be able to get a good grasp of a customer's wants, needs, and must haves via email better than any other method. When someone speaks they seldom stop to think about what they are saying and there is a tendency for departing from the subject at hand. If someone must sit still and write about it they are more likely to compose their thoughts and provide an outlined view of what they want done.

A questionnaire can be of great help because it forces the thought process into an outlined composition. As for aesthetics ask your customer to examine their favorite websites and what they like about them. You can get a better idea of what they like that way even if they can't put it into words.

My experiences with face to face meetings, has been a lot of the customer trying to nickel and dime me for free extras. It is harder for someone to charm you remotely.

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In addition I think its a part of the job to make understand our clients that "user experience" is precisely about "users" and that it implies meeting them.

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This question was asked years ago but it's still relevant for a lot of UX designers, even with the advent of online video qual platforms. Usersnap has a number of tools that enable researchers and designers to track responses and collect user feedback. We also wrote a blog looking at Google as an example for user research. Here's a link:

https://usersnap.com/blog/google-user-research-ensure-customer-loyalty/

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