In general, remote user research simply describes any research where the moderator and the research participants are physically separated. However, there are lots of different varieties of remote user research, and each has its own strengths, weaknesses, and circumstances in which they’re most effective. Some types allow you to test many people at once, while others give you a detailed look at just a few users’ behaviors. Some techniques are best for testing fully-functional live websites, but prototypes, wireframes, and sketches sometimes require specialized methods. Just to begin, let’s start with the two broadest categories of remote user testing, Moderated and Unmoderated (or Automated):
Moderated research has the research facilitator (a.k.a. “moderator”) speaking directly to one or more participants. Examples of moderated research include one-on-one interviews, ethnographies, and group discussions. The major benefit of moderated research is that you can gather very in-depth qualitative feedback: not just opinions, but physical behavior, tone-of-voice, facial expression, and so on. A moderated discussion also allows the moderator to probe on new subjects as they arise over the course of a conversation, which makes the research more flexible in scope and makes it possible to explore interesting ideas and usages that were unforeseen during the planning phases of the study–we like to call these “emerging topics”.
Unmoderated / Automated Research
Unmoderated research is, of course, the complement of moderated research: the moderator does not speak directly with the participant, but instead uses a web-based tool or service to gather the feedback automatically (hence the alternate “Automated research” moniker). Typically, unmoderated research is used to gather quantitative feedback from a large (i.e. hundreds or more) sample. There’s all sorts of feedback you can get this way: you can use online surveys to get open- and closed-ended (multiple choice) opinions, use flash- or Ajax-based card sorting tools to understand the way users mentally categorize things, or use clickmaps and mouse tracking to see where users are clicking on a page to accomplish a particular task.
Which Type Should I Use?
Good question! It mostly depends on the specificity and nature of the thing you’re trying to find out. Are you trying to figure out if your webpage is generally easy-to-use, or trying to root out problems you might not have foreseen, or trying to get insight into the way your product fits into people’s lives? Then you’ll want to go with moderated research, which provides you with a very rich portrait of users’ behavior and usage context. On the other hand, are you trying to decide what color a webpage should be, where to place a particular button, or how to organize a navigation bar? For those specific small-scale questions, it’s probably best to go with an unmoderated method, which will allow you to get a broad look at how a large sample addresses a particular task or question.
We’ll be posting more on specific methodologies in the future; keep an eye out!
(Photo credits: foundphotoslj and racatumba on Flickr)