With support from the Open Society Foundations, Pro Bono Net’s Legal Empowerment and Technology Initiative seeks to advance the strategy and practice of technology-enabled legal empowerment efforts in the US. Our initiative strives to expand access to justice and build legal capacity in local communities, in partnership with civil justice organizations from across the nation. In Alaska, we are making it easier to apply for disability benefits. In Puerto Rico, we are helping homeowners identify their risk of foreclosure. And in New York, we are simplifying the wage theft claim filing process.
Over the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of leading a range of virtual engagements with our Legal Empowerment and Technology cohort. These virtual engagements blend participatory action research methods with design thinking to co-design legal empowerment technology solutions. In today’s blog post, I’ll be sharing three best practices for facilitating remote user research interviews.
In April, I led a series of user research interviews for ¡Reclamo!, a wage theft filing tool for construction workers. Our goal was to learn how community navigators who help workers access the law (but aren’t necessarily lawyers) support wage theft victims during the claims filing process. What does a community navigator’s workflow, mindset, and reasoning look like throughout this experience?
With the help from our partners, Make the Road New York, as well as the community organization La Colmena, our design team connected with paralegals and intake specialists who work with day laborers and other workers. Together, we conducted four rounds of ethnographic interviews in Spanish and ended each session with a short exercise. Thanks to the generosity of our participants, our team was able to identify ways that ¡Reclamo! could make filing wage theft claims easier.
Throughout these interviews, our team relied on three best practices that use a co-design approach to conducting user research.
Think of data as borrowed, not given
Strong research interviews involve figuring out research goals, making a plan, and writing top-notch interview questions. These steps are fundamental to the research process but focusing on them alone can be extractive if carelessly executed.
One way to counteract this imbalance is to re-frame how you think about data. A research participant’s privacy should be treated with equal importance to the needs of the project. You can avoid this harmful pattern 1) by thinking about participant data as information that is borrowed, not given and 2) centering the participant’s data safety in your research preparation. A few examples of these principles in action are:
- Thoughtful user research agreements that informed our research participant about their rights. Going beyond the typical information release form made this administrative task into a meaningful touch point between our team and the community.
- Simply being associated with a research project can put a participant at risk. Measures should be put in place to protect a participant’s metadata in addition to any insights that they share within a session. In this case, I made sure to delete calendar invites sent to participants and teammates after each session. SimplySecure maintains a robust knowledge base full of free resources on safe data handling.
- Immediately after completing our interviews, I created a deck that explained what we had learned about the claim filing process from our participants. The deck also shared how we planned to use those insights. I shared this deck back to our participants within a couple of weeks of their interviews to “return” their data to them and to increase transparency.
Set your team up for success
If you’re lucky enough to work with more than one person on your research team, be sure to invest the time into making sure they are set up for success. In a virtual context, this extra effort is helpful because you won’t have physical cues or resources to lean on.
I was lucky to have wonderful colleagues who could help me interview and take notes in Spanish. My teammates had varying levels of UX research experience so it was especially important that we get on the same page before diving into back-to-back interviews. Some things we did were:
- I hosted a training session with all of my teammates before our interviews began
- On the call, I made sure to share my expectations for the interviews, review our research goals and script
- I also took some time to review how and where teammates should take notes, leaving room for feedback
- I kept the links to all of our materials on a central planning document
Maintaining an organized hub for materials and open communication lines helped streamline the on-boarding process despite a tight timeline. As the only team member not fluent in Spanish, I relied heavily on my team for their feedback and translation skills. Thanks to this effort, we were able to successfully iterate on our interviews in between sessions, making each one better than the one before.
Logistical details matter!
Logistical details can be more impactful than you might think. Virtual interviews might seem like an obvious time-saver because there is no need to commute to a testing location. However, virtual research has its own drawbacks that can waste time if not properly planned for. For example:
- There are almost always technical issues (like video cameras not turning on or low sound quality) that can delay the interview from starting or even from being completed. Make sure to buffer your interview time to account for these kinds of issues. It’s also important to practice patience when they arise!
- “No-shows” are a common phenomenon. I recommend overbooking the number of participants you need and maintaining a flexible schedule during the course of your interviews. If you have teammates helping you, make sure that they take into account any rescheduling that might occur and how rescheduling might affect your team’s capacity.
- Make sure that at least one member of your team is an expert in using your interviewing tech stack. Getting to know your video-conference, recording, note-taking, and any other tools well will ensure you can efficiently troubleshoot issues.
Conducting qualitative user research interviews is a key first step for engaging communities. Active listening is a vital component of co-design, so taking the time to better understand a community or user’s process will always be valuable. I used the insights gathered from our interviews to run a co-design workshop with our partners. Read more about Facilitating Effective Co-Design Workshops!
This is the first part of Pro Bono Net’s three-part blog series on legal empowerment and co-design best practices. To read part two, click here.