Remote usability testing

Article published on February 11, 2006 under Usability

The diffusion of screen sharing software and remote control applications is slowly changing how usability evaluations are conducting because usability experts can now interact with users geographically distant and with different cultural backgrounds. Moreover Internet and fast broadband connection strengthen the ability to deploy high quality videos and makes user observation more accurate for usability evaluators. With this premises we can define remote usability testing as a technique that exploits user home (or office!), transforming it into an usability laboratory where user observation can be done with screen sharing applications.

Conducting a remote usability test is not so different from taking a classical usability evaluation, but there some facts that have to be considered prior beginning the session regarding:

  • Participants recruiting
  • Environment setup
  • Test execution

Participants recruiting

Participants to remote usability testing can be recruited through any channel used for normal usability testing, but surely the cheapest and fastest method is using online questionnaires. The online screening infact, permits the selection of users based on detailed criteria such as job title, annual revenues and geographic location. An important remark to consider in the recruiting phase is to ask participant information about their internet connection and also about their knowledge of screen sharing and remote control applications.

Normally, this phase can take three or four days to complete if questionnaire had to be prepared from scratch, but is a good habit reuse old screening questions adapting them to the current situation thus reducing effort to only one day.

Environment setup

Remote control software had to be preparared both for usability expert and for participants. While setting up the application for the usability expert can be quite simple, installing and configuring the software for the users can be more difficult if they haven't any knowledge or experience for this kind of programs. During recruiting is also a good idea send to participant a little document explaining in a simple way how to configure their computer and how to set up the application for the usability session.

Another solution is using collaborative or conferencing services like WebEx that permits meet with anyone, anywhere in real time over the web. Cost for this service had to be take in consideration if budget for usability tests is limited.

Test execution

Conducting a remote usability test is not so different to conducting a usability session in a laboratory. Dialog with participant is performed through the phone or even using chat and messenger applications, if in this way users can feel more confortable or misunderstandings can be avoided if working with participants of foreign countries. User interaction can be viewed in the facilitator monitor thanks to the use of screen sharing capabilities peculiar of this lind of software. In all cases user interaction had to be recorded for future reference and analysis.

Some studies (for example Remote Testing versus Lab Testing) has revealed that the number of key usability findings was higher using remote usability testing rather than usability laboratory testing.

Benefits and limitations

The obvious and greatest advantage of this methodology is that remote usability testing makes accessible to usability experts a large pool of participants geographically and culturally heterogeneous. Additionally this technique:

  • reduces usability testing costs because all travel expenses both for usability experts and for participants are eliminated;
  • makes usability tests more real because they are conducted in a familiar environment for the user and avoids in such manner all anxiety led by facilitator next to them and by observers sitting outside;
  • permits a strategic participant recruiting because hard to reach users can be hired without excessive effort;
  • increases the parallelism of usability tests because two or more usability experts can conduct the same test in the same time with different participants;
  • reduces time needed to perform usability evaluation because recruiting, environment setup and test execution can be done with less effort;

These advantages make remote usability testing more appealing than traditional usability evaluation, but there some disadvantages that have to be considered before choosing between one those two techniques. Infact, in comparison with classic methods, remote usability testing:

  • can bring to security and performance issues due to the nature of remote connections. Bandwidth and guaranteed uptime are key factors for this methodology;
  • has a limited visual feedback because usability experts cannot take in consideration nonverbal cues and reactions;
  • makes more difficult build relation and trust with facilitators;
  • can be difficult to use for participants. Infact screen sharing tools and remote control software need to be set up prior to the session and users can encounter problems getting the tool to work correctly. Moreover facilitator can find problems trying to troubleshoot software behavior;

Choosing the right technique

Remote usability testing is ideal for:

  • web applications;
  • intranets;
  • e-commerce web sites;
  • informational web sites;
  • projects with a low budget for usability testing

Usability testing conducted in laboratory is suitable for:

  • resources that cannot be reached online (cruise controls, cars dashboards, …);
  • web sites depending on particular devices (accessibility devices, handheld, …);
  • highly secure client/server application;
  • projects where physical user observation is needed;
  • long test sessions