I just did an in-person user test last week. And while the news is unfolding too fast to keep up, I’d be willing to bet that it will be my last for a while. Even though we took great precautions to disinfect any surfaces anyone might come in contact with, in-person research is not well-suited to the social distancing that is key to slowing the spread of COVID-19.

What is this pandemic going to do to the UX world? What are all the designers and product managers, currently working from home, supposed to do about getting user feedback? The industry has finally, largely accepted that a steady supply of user data is the recipe for success. But suddenly, like so many other things right now, it seems that the flow is being disrupted.

Perhaps 2020 shall become the year of the remote user test.

For those unfamiliar with remote user testing, the concept is pretty straightforward: users participate in a study from their own location, usually home or work. The studies fall into two general categories—, moderated and unmoderated. A remote-moderated user study has long been an important device in our toolkit. Basically, a moderator interviews a study participant, in real time, generally through verbal conversation.

Historically, we at Corporate Insight have used remote user studies in order get geographic diversity in our sample while minimizing travel, or to get audiences who may be unwilling or unable to do an in-person interview.

The recipe is fairly simple: you use a web conferencing platform to connect with the participant remotely. Depending on what type of stimulus is to be shown, there are several ways to accomplish that.

There are pros and cons to remote user testing, but then there are trade-offs to every aspect of qualitative research. Taking as a given that “avoiding further spread of COVID-19” is in the “pro” column, let’s look at some of the trade-offs of remote testing.

The big pro is geographic diversity. With a nationwide recruit, you can avoid biases inherent in one given region. A decade or more ago, we even used to do simple tests in multiple cities; sometimes we would find differences per region, other times we wouldn’t. It was an expensive learning, though, when you’d factor in the time required and travel/lab costs.

One of the biggest cons is the difficulty in testing mobile devices. I still haven’t seen what I’d call a great solution for testing a mobile device remotely. It’s such a tricky endeavor because you need a clear view of the screen, but you also want to see the user’s hands. The good news for mobile is that we’re often testing prototypes, and common prototyping tools have mobile emulators that work on desktop. No, respondents can’t hold the device in their hands, but you can get the bulk of the data you need using that method.

Another variable that could be either a pro or a con is that respondents are using their own equipment. Certainly, when we sit down to do our analysis, it’s easier when we know everyone saw the same thing, in the same resolution, with the same plugins or fonts installed, and nothing else going on. Conversely, a respondent’s equipment can almost act as an early QA test, uncovering serious issues that might not have been discovered in a more ideal lab setting.

There are those who say that a con of remote user testing is that it’s harder to build a rapport with the respondent, or that you can’t see their body language or facial expressions. This is a valid point, but a strong moderator can build rapport and trust over any medium, and body language isn’t the only indicator of a person’s reactions or feelings.

Another common concern about remote testing is attendance. People worry that, without the structure of coming to a facility and checking in with the front desk, respondents won’t show up, or will show up late. This has not typically been my experience. But even if it was historically the case, it’s clear that in-person doesn’t have the advantage during this crisis.

The biggest thing in the pro column, however, is that remote testing works. We’ve done remote user tests for very discerning clients, and we’ve delivered insightful, actionable data.

If you’re interested in learning more about remote user testing, feel free to reach out. We’ve done countless remote studies over the years and have picked up a trick or two.

The Corporate Insight UX team has built our reputation on finding solutions to tricky challenges. Even if we’re social distancing these days, we’ll get through this together.

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