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Remote Usability Testing – User Research despite Social Distancing

We all agree: Remote usability testing has existed long before corona. But in times of social distancing, the demand for virtual tests is increasing. Good preparation, the right tools and professional moderators make it possible to gain valuable input from users, allowing you to keep working on optimizing products and services with the user in mind. But how do you get authentic feedback from users without being together in one room? Dominik Zenth discussed this question in an online panel of the German UPA. We would like to introduce you to the most important characteristics of remote usability tests.

Preparation – the key to success

Whether we test remotely or on site – for us, the number of participants remains the same. However, it is ideal to invite one or two more candidates because it isn’t uncommon for participants to drop out due to technical problems. To ensure that the remote test starts punctually and without any hitches, you should get approval from the participants. Every participant has to hand back a signed form of consent for the online test in time. Our advice for the duration of the remote test is a maximum of 75 minutes: 15 minutes for the warm-up and 60 minutes for the face-to-face test have proven to be highly effective. You should also ask the participants to be present 10 minutes before the test starts so that everything can be set up in time.

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Communication – what tools to choose?

Whenever the participant and the moderator are not in the same room, it is important to pick the most suitable communication platform. Always remember: Wherever technology is involved, it can fail. And therefore, even though this might sound self-evident, never forget to test the setup with every participant in advance. Use online meeting tools that are as user-friendly as possible, e. g. Teams or other tools your participants are already familiar with. In addition, digital pin boards are great tools to use for taking notes together in a team or for including creative tasks such as card sorting into the test session. When discussing results with a participant, it is useful to list them in the chat and prioritize them using likes. We have used the tools Miro and Conceptboard and found them to be very useful. But even the best preparation doesn’t guarantee that everything runs smoothly. Difficulties can always occur, no matter what. Therefore, you should have an additional means of communication (e. g. mobile number) in case the participant can no longer access the tool.

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Going live – turn your cameras on

For a more personal feel: turn your cameras on! Especially at the start of the session, a little warm-up and a calm atmosphere help the participants to feel at ease. In your role as a moderator, it is important to keep the participants engaged. To this end, thinking-aloud methods are useful. They require the users to continuously verbalize their thoughts and opinions. And there is one more aspect to remember: timing is key! The moderator should therefore always keep an eye on the time, include breaks and focus on the essentials.

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Remote tests – limits

Despite all the benefits: In some cases, remote setups are not particularly useful – or even not useful at all, for example when testing physical devices that are not exclusively controlled via a graphical user interface. Even though remote tests may be possible here, they will not be as effective as on-site tests. And although some tricks make it possible to display the functionality of an analog device, such as a remote control, on a monitor, there are tests whose results depend on a realistic environment. Such tests should continue to be performed in a classical face-to-face setting. These include summative evaluation studies for the approval of medical devices since they require a realistic testing environment. Currently, we perform such tests on site, taking strict safety precautions such as distance regulations and face masks.

Remote cooperation

Summarizing the above, we consider remote usability testing to be an integral part of our agile and user-centered product development process, not only in times of social distancing. We are happy to support you with your remote usability tests and to share our best practices with you. To ensure that user research is successful even though personal contacts are not possible and technology comes into play.Let us know what you think!