UX Research

UX Research in 2021: in-person or remote? Which is better?

4 minute read time

COVID-19 has changed the landscape of the in-person vs. remote testing debate.

The reality is that in-person research requires close contact with participants. Unfortunately, 2021 will likely be a year where close contact isn’t safe.

So, due to social distance requirements, the clear winner is to conduct your UX research via remote testing.

What does in-person testing look like?

In-person testing comes in a variety of flavors.

Some companies have a research lab where participants come and enter the lab, sit at the table, and use the devices available to them there. The UX professional will sit with the participant in the room, look over their shoulder and observe, instruct, and ask them questions.

In this scenario there is typically a two way mirror where observers can watch without being seen.

Often times the observers include at least one UX professional who is taking notes on how the participant responds and performs. Other observers include stake holders and employees of the company being tested.

You don’t always need a usability lab though. Sometimes in-person testing simply happens in an empty room or conference room.

The value of running the test isn’t necessarily in the set up or location. It’s in listening to and learning from each participant. It’s in observing and noticing usability issues as they arise. It’s in understanding the participant's perspective.

What does remote testing look like?

Remote testing takes on different forms.

It can be a conference call or internet call where the user experience team and others who will be participating gather around a phone or computer where the participant is on the line.

Sometimes there’s a video stream and sometimes there’s not. It depends on the goals of the study.

Sometimes you’re simply conducting an interview or you could be screen sharing and instructing the participant to perform certain tasks. Everyone with a link can observe and listen to the participant in real time.

Other times, you put together the study and then open up the study for participants to run through the tasks while being recorded, answering any questions you prepared in advance. You then later view the study and the results.

And sometimes they’re not even recorded. You simply ask them to perform tasks and the software records their responses and success rates. When you log into the software you can see how many participants took part in your user study and the results.

The case for in-person testing.

Years ago a lot of people used to prefer and lean very strongly towards in-person testing. For years, this was the only type of usability tests we ran.

Each year the case for in-person testing becomes less and less strong. Our culture has shifted and we are now used to doing things online.

A lot of UX professionals still highly prefer in-person testing. But, there is a shift happening towards remote testing and COVID-19 has helped speed it up.

The biggest argument for in-person testing in 2021 is to do it when:

  • You want to observe participants. You want to see their facial expressions, body language, and see them actually performing the tasks.
  • You don’t want any interruptions. When you’re in the lab you have greater control. In an online setting kids, dogs, or delivery drivers might interrupt the usability session.
  • You are concerned about privacy. You don’t want your new app, wireframe, idea, or whatever you’re testing to be accessible to anyone via a link in which it will likely need to be when doing remote testing.
  • You or your participants don’t have stable internet. This is particularly important when you need to run two-way video calls.
  • You have space and can socially distance. You have a usability lab and the space to socially distance.

This list of arguments has shrunk over the years as technology and options for remote testing have improved and expanded.

The case for remote testing.

Now more than ever, people have come to learn how to and even rely on doing things online.

Everything from your job to your children’s education to your doctor’s appointments are now all online. It’s only natural that user research might be as well.

Some arguments for remote testing in 2021 is to do it when:

  • You want results fast. The recruitment and logistics of running the study in particular are much faster when doing remote testing.
  • You want to save money. No need to pay for facilities, equipment, travel, and the additional time that in-person testing takes. With in-person testing you also need to compensate the participants more for their involvement because it is more time intensive and also typically requires travel on the participants part. The software needed to run remote tests are one additional cost but they’re usually far offset by the other savings.
  • Easier recruitment. It’s much less of a commitment for participants both in terms of time and travel requiremens. With remote testing you just click a link and you're in the study.
  • More potential participants. Anyone from anywhere in the world can be a potential participant. People with disabilities or some sort of obstacle that would have barred them from physically being there can now participate. Also, participants who would have been excluded because they are too busy (think doctors, lawyers, shift workers, etc.) are now potential candidates to participate because they can do it in-between patients or cases or over their lunch break.
  • You're interested in the participants natural settings. They’re not in the lab using your equipment. They’re at their own home on their own computer. It’s more realistic.
  • You want all your team members to be involved in the user research. Just send them a link and they can either watch or view the data coming in.

So, which should you choose?

It really depends on the goals and requirements for your study. Most of the time, and especially this year with COVID-19, you will probably be leaning towards some form of remote testing.

This is particularly true as platforms like Empathetic become available where you can quickly and easily set up a user study, get help interpreting the results, and take action within a few days of starting the study.