Remote User Research: The Time Is Now

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
June 22, 2020

For many years, UX research professionals have been able to conduct their user research either remotely or in person. But now the COVID-19 pandemic has made remote user research the only option for the foreseeable future. In-person research requires close contact with participants so isn’t safe in a world that requires social distancing. I don’t think we’ll see in-person research sessions resuming anytime soon. In the meantime, let’s make the most of remote user research.

Fortunately, remote user-research methods are not new to most UX researchers. We’ve been conducting remote user research successfully for years—and have discovered what works well and how to overcome many of its limitations. So switching all of our user research to remote sessions doesn’t require us to make any dramatic changes. In this column, I’ll discuss how to adapt to conducting all of your user research remotely and consider whether it makes sense to continue conducting user research during this unusual time in our history.

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Remote User-Research Technology Is Better Than Ever

Over the last 20 years, remote user-research technology has improved greatly—to the point that it is easier to use, presents fewer technical problems, and is more effective than it’s ever been. While this technology is still not perfect, it’s a far cry from what it was when I started conducting remote research in the early 2000s. At that time, the technology had a lot of technical problems and limitations.

Online Meeting Tools Used to Be Difficult to Use

In the early 2000s, online meeting tools such as WebEx and GoToMeeting were not in such prevalent use as they are today, so research participants were often unfamiliar with them. Plus, these tools weren’t as easy to use, and participants often encountered technical problems. You could count on spending the first ten or more minutes of a session waiting for the participant to connect. Then you had to walk the participant through how to get started with the tool. That meant, with ten minutes of troubleshooting, you could plan on having only about 50 minutes for research during a typical 60-minute session. It was also necessary to recruit and conduct sessions with at least a couple of extra participants to make up for any sessions that technical problems might ruin.

Participants Were Hesitant About Sharing Their Screens

When using these early, online-meeting applications, participants were often skeptical about installing the software on their computer. Plus, asking participants to share their screen with you seemed like a very suspicious thing to do. What will you be able to see? Is this a trick to get permanent control over my computer? When participants were at home, they worried about hacking and identity theft. At work, they worried about whether they would get in trouble with their employer.

Participants Encountered Technical Limitations

Often, participants didn’t have the right technology to participate easily in remote sessions. Internet connections, especially in homes, were not nearly as fast as they are today, which could make screen sharing and the use of Webcams difficult. Plus, most participants didn’t have Webcams or microphones on their computers, so they had to call into online meetings by phone.

Current Online Meeting Software Is Better

Online meeting software has improved greatly since those early days. Today, this software is much easier to use, requires very little setup to get started, and users encounter many fewer technical problems. Internet speeds are now much faster—both at work and in homes. Almost everyone who works in a modern office has attended many online meetings and is familiar and comfortable with both sharing their screen and using a Webcam during online meetings. Even people who never participate in online meetings at work are now familiar with using online-meeting software such as Zoom to communicate with friends and family during the pandemic.

Today’s online-meeting tools have many additional features that are useful for remote user research. You can set up most of them to record sessions automatically, incorporating both the screen sharing and Webcam video of the person who is talking. Therefore, you don’t need separate screen-recording software, as you did in the past. Tools such as Zoom and WebEx can also transcribe the audio and present the transcription alongside your video recordings. While the software doesn’t always capture people’s exact words perfectly, the transcriptions are good enough to make it much easier to find and watch specific parts of videos, either to supplement your notes or to create video clips. When you download the videos, WebEx adds the transcriptions as captions at the bottom of the video frames.

Remote, Mobile User Research Is Now Possible

Until the last few years, the biggest limitation of online-meeting tools was that they were capable of sharing only users’ computer screens. The mobile apps for these online-meeting tools allowed people to join a meeting on their phone or tablet, but not share their phone’s or tablet’s screen. This limited remote user research to computer user interfaces or mobile prototypes running on a computer. While there were some workarounds—such as having participants use Air Play to show their iPhone or iPad screen on their Mac, then share their Mac screen during an online meeting, this approach was limited to participants who had those devices and had enough technical savvy to set them up properly.

Happily, in the last few years, many online-meeting apps such as Zoom and WebEx have allowed users to share their phone or tablet screen. This has removed one of the last, major barriers to remote, mobile user research. Participants can now show UX researchers their typical tasks on both apps and Web sites and interact with mobile prototypes much more naturally on their own phone rather than using a mouse to click through a mobile prototype running on a computer.

But Is Now the Right Time to Conduct User Research?

With everything that’s going on during the current COVID-19 pandemic and people worrying about their health, employment, and finances, we’re living in a time that is drastically different from our normal lives. Won’t participants be too distressed by their current situation and respond differently from the way they normally would? Would it be insensitive to ask people to do something as relatively unimportant to them as participating in a user-research study during this difficult time? As a result of these concerns, some companies have wondered whether they should pause their user-research activities until the pandemic is over.

Understanding Users Is More Important Than Ever

Unfortunately, this pandemic isn’t just an aberration. It won’t last only a few months, after which everything will return to normal. If this were a temporary situation, maybe it would make sense to hit pause on our user research for a few months until the pandemic were all over. However, even with businesses starting to reopen and people beginning to leave their homes a little more, life will continue to be very different until a vaccination is widely available. Plus, even when the pandemic is finally over, we’ll emerge into a world that the pandemic has affected greatly and perhaps changed forever. So we can’t wait until everything has returned to normal after the pandemic to conduct user research. In fact, conducting user research is more important than ever so we can understand how our users and their behaviors have changed.

We Need to Understand People’s Shift to Doing Everything Online

Social distancing has caused most people to rely more than ever on technology. Everyone has transitioned from in-person activities to online activities. Although most of us have been shopping online for years, we’re now shopping for everything online. All schools have had to adapt to some clumsy form of online education. Live performances have transitioned to streaming online. Doctors have had to embrace telemedicine. Everyone is now using online-meeting software to communicate with friends and family. With all of these formerly in-person activities becoming online activities, it’s more important than ever to conduct user research to improve the user experience of such services.

Once the pandemic is over, I’m sure people will be eager to go out and do things in person again, but they’ll probably continue using some of the online services that they’ve found most useful while social distancing. This will be especially true if we’ve continued conducting user research and learned how to improve their user experience.

Most People Are Eager to Participate in User-Research Studies

Some have suggested that participants might be too distracted by health and economic anxieties during the pandemic to participate in user-research studies. Or they fear that asking people to participate in our studies at this time might come off as insensitive. However, for the studies I’ve conducted over the last few months, I’ve found that the truth is the exact opposite: people are more willing than ever to participate in user research. Most people are already at home—either working from home or temporarily unemployed—so they have a lot of time on their hands. They actually appreciate the chance to make some extra money. Plus, participating in a user-research study offers an interesting change of pace. I haven’t found that people have been too distracted to participate.

UX researchers shouldn’t feel that it’s inappropriate to recruit participants at this time. People volunteer to participate in user research. We don’t force them. Those who do feel too full of anxiety to participate can easily decline. They’re perfectly capable of making that decision themselves. In fact, I recently had a participant who was actually infected with COVID-19 and quarantining at home. I made sure to ask him whether he felt well enough to participate in the session. He said he did—and he looked and sounded fine—so he was able to participate.

The Pandemic Will and Won’t Affect People’s Responses

Some wonder whether participants’ answers and actions might be different because of the current situation. Yes, the pandemic has greatly altered most people’s lives, and it will probably continue to affect them long after it’s over. This is why it is very important to conduct user research now. We need to understand people’s current situation and the changes in their behavior.

Of course, the pandemic won’t change the basic principles of human psychology or how humans interact with technology. Therefore, it won’t affect your assessment of a product’s user experience, participants’ ability to understand and perform tasks with a user interface, or their opinions about a design. We can still conduct user research to evaluate designs—just as we did before.

Now More Than Ever

Remote user research has improved greatly over the years. It is an effective way to understand users’ behaviors during the pandemic, and it will continue to be a useful way of conducting user research long after everything has transitioned to a new normal. Perhaps this time of being able to conduct user research only remotely might lead to even greater improvements in remote user-research methods and technologies.

Someday this pandemic will end, and we’ll be safe again. People are eager to get out of the house to dine in restaurants, go to movie theaters, attend concerts, and gather with friends and family again. I look forward to finally being able to get back out in the real world to conduct in-person user research. Until then, let’s continue connecting with and learning from research participants remotely—all over the world. 

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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