Remote UX Research: Advantages and Disadvantages, Part 1

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
September 21, 2020

UX researchers have always had the option of conducting research remotely, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become necessary to use remote methods for all UX research. As I discussed in my last column, “Remote User Research: The Time Is Now,” remote research is not new. We’ve always known that remote research has both advantages and disadvantages to in-person research. However, now that in-person research is no longer an option and we’ve had to convert all of our UX research to remote methods, we’ve discovered some additional advantages and disadvantages.

In Part 1 of this two-part column, I’ll focus on the many advantages of remote UX research. Then, in Part 2, I’ll focus on the disadvantages and provide advice on how to overcome or mitigate them.

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Advantages of Remote UX Research

Remote UX research methods developed as an alternative to in-person methods because they do offer some significant advantages over in-person research. Let’s take a look at the advantages that remote research has always provided, as well as those that have become especially relevant during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Remote Research Is Safer

The major advantage of remote UX research these days is something that we didn’t even consider prior to the current pandemic: Remote research is safer for the health of the researcher and the participants because it lets the researcher and participants interact at a distance. Everyone can remain in their own location—whether in their own home or office—anywhere in the world, interacting through online-meeting software, which makes it impossible to transmit any virus.

In-person UX research typically requires the researcher and participants to sit closely enough to each other to have a normal conversation. The researcher must be close enough to participants to observe the details of their tasks, which is too close for social distancing. In-person research also requires either the researcher or the participants to travel, which is a great way to pick up or transmit germs.

There are definitely great advantages to observing and interacting with participants in person, and I hope we can get back to it someday soon, but now is not the time to interact that closely with others.

Remote Research Is Easier to Conduct When You’re Sick

When you’re sick, it’s easier and more comfortable to conduct remote sessions, and you won’t risk transmitting your illness to the participants. Of course, I’m not advocating that you conduct research when you’re extremely sick and unable to function. I’m talking about those times when you have a slight cold that’s mostly a minor nuisance. In such situations, you’d feel more comfortable in your own home. You can mute yourself if you need to cough or blow your nose. You can avoid feeling guilty about possibly getting participants sick.

In the past, you might have felt that you had no choice but to carry on with in-person research—even when you had a slight cold. Nowadays, can we ever assume that what we have is just a harmless cold? It’s better to be safe than sorry. For more advice about conducting UX research when you’re ill, see my column “The Show Must Go On,” on UXmatters.

Remote Research Is Faster

You can often conduct remote research more quickly than in-person research because it’s easier for people to participate in remote sessions. Plus, it’s often easier and faster to recruit participants for remote research. Without having to travel, you can save time by not needing to book a research facility or arrange travel, eliminate travel time, and won’t have to submit any travel expenses afterward. Because you’re at your desk before, during, and after the sessions, it’s easier to type up your notes and insights after each session. This lets you quickly transition to analysis after your last research session.

Remote Research Is Less Expensive

Because remote research eliminates the costs of facilities, equipment, and travel, it’s usually less expensive than in-person research. Participant incentives can also be lower for remote sessions because these sessions require much less of participants’ time and effort. Participants don’t need to travel to and from a research facility. Online-meeting software is the one additional cost for remote research, but that’s usually offset by the other savings I’ve mentioned.

Remote Research Is Easier for Participants

Since a typical remote research session requires only about an hour of each participant’s time, it’s much easier for people to participate in remote research. Joining an online meeting for an hour is much less effort than taking half a day off to travel to a research facility, participate in a session, then travel back.

It’s Easier to Recruit Participants for Remote Research

Because remote sessions are much easier and less time consuming for participants, it can be easier, quicker, and less expensive to recruit participants for remote UX research. It’s also easier to recruit people who would be too busy to participate in in-person sessions. Doctors, lawyers, and other highly paid professionals are often unable or unwilling to take several hours off to participate in in-person sessions. It’s much easier for them to join an hour-long remote session. Because participating in remote UX research is much easier, you’re likely to recruit more representative participants than you would get if you included only the usual suspects—those professional research participants who are always willing to come in for an in-person session.

You Can Include Participants from Anywhere in the World

Instead of your being limited to recruiting participants who can travel to you or to whom you can travel, remote research lets you recruit people who fit your criteria from anywhere in the world. When you’re not limited geographically, it’s easier to find the exact types of participants you need. For example, if you need to find twelve middle-aged tuba players who promote their music on Instagram, you can look for them across the entire United States rather than trying to find them just in the Chicago area.

Your Research Can Be More Inclusive

Remote UX research makes it easier to include a wider range of participants, including those who have disabilities that would make it difficult for them to travel to an in-person session. People with physical disabilities or health problems might be reluctant to participate in in-person research because of the additional effort and difficulties they’d face in traveling to the session—especially now, with COVID-19. However, participating remotely could be much easier for them. Remote UX research lets you be more inclusive in your recruiting, allowing you to get a wider range of perspectives. Often, we think about including people with disabilities only when we’re conducting accessibility testing. But there’s no reason why people with disabilities couldn’t participate in any other UX research studies. Remote research makes participation possible for a wider range of people.

Participants Are More Comfortable

For those of us who conduct UX research regularly, it’s easy to forget how strange and unnatural it can feel to participate in UX research. Sitting in a usability lab or market-research facility, in the midst of cameras and microphones, with an intimidating one-way mirror, and having a UX researcher question and observe you while taking notes can feel awkward and intimidating. Similarly, even in your natural environment, having a few researchers visit you in your home or workplace to interview and observe you while recording video of what you’re doing can also feel very uncomfortable and unnatural.

In contrast, participants are often more comfortable and less intimidated by remote UX research. They remain in the familiar environment of their home or workplace, using their own devices, being observed only via a single Webcam, at a distance from the researcher. Comfortable, relaxed participants might be more open and forthcoming, revealing more natural behavior and reactions.

The Research Can Be More Realistic

Interviewing and observing participants in their own home or workplace, using their own devices, and surrounded by their tools and work artifacts, lets you observe more realistic tasks and behaviors. Although visiting participants in person would be the best way to see every detail, remote UX research is the next best option. Remote sessions are more realistic than taking people out of their natural surroundings to the artificial environment of a lab or market-research facility. During a remote research session, you’re able to see only a little bit of the participants’ environment, but you can see them perform tasks using their own devices, software, applications, browsers, and documents. If you’re trying to learn about their current behavior and processes, participants often find it easier to talk about and demonstrate their tasks and behaviors when they’re in their natural environment, with the devices, tools, documents, and artifacts they normally use in performing their tasks.

Participants Find Thinking Aloud More Natural

Some participants seem to have difficulty thinking aloud during in-person sessions so you might constantly have to prod and remind them to think aloud. Although thinking aloud seems to come naturally to others. However, I’ve found that, for some reason, thinking aloud seems to feel more natural to participants in remote sessions. Perhaps, because you’re not in the same room with them, it makes sense that they should describe what they’re doing and why. Or maybe they feel less self-conscious and more comfortable when thinking aloud during a remote session.

It’s Easier to Focus on Observation, Listening, and Notetaking

When you moderate an in-person session, you have to devote some part of your attention to the social norms of an in-person conversation. You must maintain eye contact, indicate that you’re listening by nodding, read participants’ facial expressions and body language, and respond accordingly. That’s in addition to everything else you need to do—such as looking at your list of questions, observing participants’ actions, listening to what they’re saying, and taking notes.

Remote sessions relieve you of the burden of some of these norms of in-person conversations, enabling you to focus more on observing what participants are doing on their screen, listening to what they’re saying, and taking notes. Maintaining eye contact during a remote session just means looking in the general direction of the Webcam. You need not look directly into the Webcam. As long as your Webcam is on top of the monitor that is displaying your notes, discussion guide, or the participant’s shared screen, it looks as if you’re maintaining eye contact. This lets you focus your attention more on the participant’s shared screen, your notes, and the discussion guide.

It’s Easier to See the Screen in Remote Sessions

In remote sessions, you can sit directly in front of your monitor, which gives you a great view of everything participants are doing on their computer, phone, or tablet. In contrast, when you visit participants in their own location, you must typically sit to the side and slightly behind them, viewing their screen from several feet away and at an angle. You don’t have nearly as clear a view as you would during a remote session.

It’s Easier to Record Remote Sessions

In-person sessions that you conduct in a research facility often require that you set up recording software, cameras, and microphones to capture both the participant’s computer or mobile-device screen and video and audio of the participant and UX researcher. When you visit participants in their own environment, you need to bring either a video camera or an audio recorder to capture the session. There’s usually no easy way to record a participant’s screen—other than by pointing a video camera at the screen or by asking the participant to join an online meeting so you can record the screen.

It’s much easier to record remote sessions. You simply need to click the Record button that is available in most online-meeting software. You can record the participant’s screen, the Webcam views, and audio, combining everything into a single recording that you can download after the session. Most online-meeting software lets you automatically record meetings, which I recommend because it’s very easy to forget to record a session.

Online Meeting Software Can Generate Transcripts

A great feature of most major online-meeting tools such as Zoom and WebEx is that they also provide a transcript when you record a session. When you view the video recordings online, a transcript appears to the right, and you can click words to jump to the corresponding point in the video. You can also search a transcript for all instances of a particular word or phrase, then click each instance to play that particular segment of the video. This is a great help when you want to review just parts of a video rather than watching long sections of a video or an entire video.

It’s Easier for People to Observe the Sessions

It’s easier for clients and project-team members to connect to an online meeting from their desks rather than to travel to a research facility to observe a session in person. Instead of having to leave their work for an entire day or even several days to watch sessions from an observation room, they can join just a few of the online sessions to get an overall sense of your research. On a typical UX research project, a few team members need to observe all of your research sessions, but there are often many others who don’t have the time to observe all sessions, but would benefit from seeing a few of them. Remote UX research provides the opportunity for more people to observe, which can help spread awareness and appreciation of UX research.

It’s Easier for the Observers to Communicate with the Researcher

It’s easier for the observers and the researcher to communicate during remote sessions. During these sessions, you might have several monitors at your desk, as well as a phone or tablet. You can display your email and Slack or some other messaging system on one of those screens, making it easier to check unobtrusively for messages from observers. During in-person sessions, it’s harder to do this without seeming distracted or giving the impression that you’re not paying attention to the participant.

Although it’s easier for observers to communicate with you during remote sessions, make sure that they don’t overdo this and actually become a distraction to you. Set up a single communication channel with the observers and establish one person as the single point of contact to take questions from everyone else, then communicate them to you. Set the expectation with observers that you need to focus your full attention on moderating the sessions, so they should communicate sparingly and save most of their questions for the end of each session.

There Are a Lot of Advantages

As you can see, remote UX research does offer a lot of advantages over in-person UX research. However, I don’t think remote research is necessarily better or worse than in-person research. Both have their advantages in certain situations, and I look forward to the day when I again can choose whether to conduct in-person or remote research sessions, depending on which method would let me get the best answers to my research questions.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll discuss the disadvantages of remote UX research and how to overcome and mitigate them. We’ll need to continue conducting remote research for the foreseeable future so you’ll need to know how to make the best of this situation. 

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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