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User research and usability testing -from a safe distance

Meeting the users face to face is always great but sometimes remote user research is the better option. It could be because of budgets, physical distances, the time you have available -or a raging pandemic virus.

Girl working remotely

Many countries in Europe have now ordered various degrees of movement restriction due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus, and most of the people in Visma are now working from the “comfort” of their homes. But, we still need to carry on with our work and continue to produce quality software. So how can we be in contact with our users and get that valuable insights in without leaving the room? 

There are pro’s and con’s to remote testing and you’ll find them beautifully listed in this article together with useful information about usability testing. Some things are easier remotely and some things are easier in real life.  Luckily modern technology is making remote work a lot easier for us by the day, and I’ll present you with some experiences from our UX Designers.

What tools do we have?

Most of us already use digital tools everyday to communicate and work together with colleagues around the world, or on the other side of the coffee machine. For talking together we are mostly using Google Hangouts / Meet and Slack. And we have Google suite, Adobe XD, Balsamiq and other programs that allow several people to work on the same document across the web

The workshop tool

For workshops, brainstorming and mapping insight we have programs like Mural. Mural is fast becoming a popular tool, not only amongst our UX- and Service Designers, but among our development teams. It can be used for remote collaboration, planning, brainstorming, design and a lot more, and the key feature right now is that several people can work on the same document simultaneously. 

Pro’s: You get instant digital output from your workshop that is easy to transform into great maps and charts. 

Con’s: You need to plan your workshop a bit more, and have a strong facilitation plan. If you use a ready-made template Mural supports you a bit with this.

The phone

I have had good experience with user interviews over the phone. The best thing about it is that it demands no tech skills of the users. Put your phone on speaker mode and have a decent voice recorder next to it, and it’s all you need. One of our UX’ers used a phone as backup for audio when the user couldn’t work out the sound on the computer. 

Pro’s: If you have a user that is not very tech savvy or has unstable internet access, the phone is always an option. Everyone knows how to use one, and nothing is overwhelming. 

Con’s: It can be difficult following what they do and where they are if they talk about a feature or page. Also, you get no facial expression and body language.

The video call

The most used setup amongst the designers in Visma is to share a prototype online via a link and go through it over in Google Meet (or other video call of choice). With Meet you can share the screen, see each other’s faces and record the meeting for transcribing and record keeping. Many of our most seasoned designers swear to this setup.

Pro’s: Most people are already familiar with this technology. Easy to set up. You get recordings and it’s fairly easy to use. You can see what they’re doing, and their face. 

Con’s: You are dependent on the users ability to open the link of the prototype. You need to manually register where they click etc during or after the session. 

The usability test programs

For usability testing there are programs and services available out there like Teston, Lookback and Maze. For moderated tests -where you are present and guide or probe the user, these programs let you have a video call while seeing the user’s screen, record the clicks on their screens and record video and sound for later. 

Pro’s: All the functions in one program. Lets you see the users screen, record the clicks on their screens and record for later

Con’s: All depends on the user being able to access and use it properly.

For unmoderated tests where the users tests on their own with written instructions, these programs can potentially save you a lot of time. It is good for getting more statistical insights and testing single features. The tests and prototypes shouldn’t be too big or complex when the user is left to their own. PS. Unmoderated tests can also be done with an online prototype and a questionnaire like Google Forms! 

Pro’s: Flexible option that lets the user test at their preferred time. 

Con’s: You can not ask follow up questions or probe for reasons behind their behaviour. Not all users are good at “thinking out loud” or being conscious of what they are actually doing. 

Test the test- it will likely be hiccups

Regardless if you are doing face-to-face or online you need to prepare yourself and have a plan for what you would like to test.

The most important, regardless of which setup or tools you use is to test the test – and do it remotely if you’re testing remotely! Have someone read your instructions and set up the needed technology, perhaps on a private computer or device. When the users are using laptops, tablets or phones, the cameras, microphones and speakers are usually installed and working already, but this is not always the case on desktop computers for example. 

Also when working with public sector or sensitive information, make sure the programs you want to use are accepted in their workplace! We have experienced occasions where Google meet was not accepted by their IT security. Ask first or have a plan B. 

The better you know the tools you are using, the lesser chance of things going wrong. Most of us who have tried remote testing and research know that complications may arise. Sometimes internet connection fails, users struggle to get their speakers working, they click on the wrong things or every other possible scenario you can think of. Just try to make it as easy as possible for the user, give simple yet detailed explanations and have options in case something fails.
A golden rule is to avoid making it more difficult for the users in order to make it easier for yourself. 

Stay safe and keep on testing! 

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