User Research Techniques: Remote Usability Testing

Television remote control

Television remote control (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In March, we wrote a post focusing on in-person types of usability testing. Today we’re writing on new tools and techniques for conducting remote usability testing.

What is remote usability testing?

Remote usability testing is a user research technique which focuses on observing user behaviors while the user is in their normal use environment. Remote usability testing differs from traditional usability testing because there is no lab, and the participant is not physically present with the researcher. Synchronous remote usability testing is conducted with the participant at the same time, while asynchronous remote usability testing records participant responses for later review by the researcher. Some alternative techniques, such as the five-second test or group usability testing, are also practiced in some contexts.

Why conduct remote usability testing?

Usability testing is critical to the successful practice of user research.

Usability testing will clarify user expectations and attitudes, and if you use your own users you can also reveal goals, motivations, and resources. If you memorize the cognitive model of conversion, you can very clearly see during a usability testing where the participant is in the process and at which points they are getting stuck.

Why would I conduct remote usability testing over in-person or laboratory-based usability testing?

Remote usability testing comes with its advantages and disadvantages over traditional testing. Neither one is better or worse, but it’s important to know the trade-offs before diving in.

  • Number of participants: A successful usability test requires at least five participants, and preferably eight to twelve participants. Remote usability testing is easier to integrate with your site or application, and you can recruit anyone from anywhere in the world, meaning recruitment will be a bit easier than traditional. Synchronous remote usability testing will be somewhat more difficult for recruitment than asynchronous remote usability testing.
  • Cost: Remote usability testing requires tooling. Popular options for synchronous include Skype, GoToMeetingand Popular options for asynchronous remote usability testing include Loop11, BeeUX, TryMyUIand Some of these tools cost money to use. At the same time, you won’t need a physical location; overall the cost ends up being similar but different.
  • Ability to ask questions: In-person and lab usability testing provides more opportunities to ask participants questions. Synchronous remote usability testing provides similar opportunities to ask questions, while in asynchronous usability testing you are limited to pre- and post-surveys as well as follow-up questions. It is more difficult to get participants to speak their thoughts aloud in asynchronous usability testing, so you will likely need more responses.
  • Context: Conducting research changes behaviors. You are less like to interrupt the participant’s behaviors, which means remote usability testing has an advantage, and asynchronous remote usability testing is the least disruptive.

How do I conduct remote usability testing?

You will first need to decide if you want to conduct in-person, synchronous remote, or asynchronous remote. This will depend on the type of data you are trying to collect as well as the fit for your organization. The general rules of usability testing apply. Find at least five to eight people, ask them to use a feature or look over comps or wireframes for five to ten minutes, and ask them to speak their thoughts aloud. As always, when possible test with your own users or people who are similar to your target audience. For remote usability testing, you’ll need to choose at least one tool to accomplish the job. You may need to form some sort of agreement screen to legally conduct the study. Take notes and ask open-ended questions. Do not lead the participant.

If you are new to remote usability testing, I highly recommend reading “Remote Research” by Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathimutte.

Also check out our prior article on usability testing for more information on how to conduct a usability test.

What are the limits of remote usability testing?

Like in-person usability testing, remote usability testing focuses on qualitative data. Remote usability tests are often combined with surveys, card sorts, and other quantitative techniques. Also, the comparison section above lists some of the limitations of remote usability testing in contrast to in-person usability testing.


Questions or comments on this article? Let us know!

One comment

  1. Simone Borsci · September 22, 2013

    Reblogged this on Simone Borsci.

Comments are closed.