Remote Usability Tests: Moderated and Unmoderated

by Amy Schade on October 12, 2013

Summary: Remote usability testing allows you to get customer insights when travel budgets are small, timeframes are tight, or test participants are hard to find.


Remote usability tests are like traditional usability tests with one key difference: the participant and facilitator are in two different physical locations. Rather than the usability expert going to a participant’s location or vice versa, the participant interacts with the design in his own home, office or other location, and the expert watches remotely.

Generally, we recommend in-person usability testing whenever possible. It is easier for usability facilitators to read users’ body language and to recognize an appropriate time for a probing or follow-up question when they are in the room with the user. It can also benefit product teams to see users interact with their designs in real life, rather than watching them on a remote feed. (For much more on how to conduct user studies, see the full-day course on Usability Testing.)

However, when in-person testing simply isn’t possible due to budget or time constraints, remote testing is preferable to the alternative: skipping the test altogether.

Remote usability sessions don’t require either the participant or the facilitator to travel. As such, remote testing is a great solution for teams with limited budget, or for testing products whose users are geographically dispersed. Scheduling a series of online studies can be preferable and far less costly than traveling around the country or the world.

It is also a good solution in a tight timeframe — travel doesn’t have to be coordinated, and facilities for testing don’t have to be secured. Further, participants can be from any geographic area rather than concentrated in one location, which can make recruiting faster and easier.

Remote research allows participants to use their own computers for the study, letting you and your team see how they set up their desktop, navigate between programs, and use tabs, for instance. This gives insight into how people work with their own machines, but it also makes it more difficult to troubleshoot any problems participants have with the remote tools needed to conduct the study.

In moderated remote testing, users and facilitators are in the same “virtual” space at the same time — the facilitator is watching the usability test remotely as it happens, and communicating directly with the participant via the telephone, email, chat, or a combination of methods. In an unmoderated remote session, the participant completes the study on his or her own schedule, recording the session for later review by the usability expert.

Moderated Studies

Moderated sessions allow for back and forth between the participant and facilitator, because both are online simultaneously. Facilitators can ask questions for clarification or dive into issues through additional questions after tasks are completed.

However, it can be difficult to know when to ask a question in a remote study. Silence on the other end of the line may mean that the user is confused, the user is immersed in content, the user is looking around the page, or the user is distracted. It can be difficult to find the balance between letting the user know you are listening, and interrupting the user. While the same is true in face-to-face studies, the problem can be magnified in remote studies.

Unmoderated Studies

Unmoderated usability sessions are completed alone by the participant. While there is no real-time interaction with the participant, some tools for remote testing allow pre-defined follow-up questions to be built into the study, to be shown after each task or at the end of the session. Questions can also be emailed to be completed after the user has finished her session. In both cases, questions are the same across users. There is no opportunity to ask detailed questions specific to the user’s actions.

Users don’t have real-time support if they have a question, need clarification, or can’t get the technology to work, though you can provide them with an email address or phone number to contact someone for assistance. This also means you don’t know what the session was like until it’s finished. If a user did run into a problem, skipped tasks, or failed to complete what was asked of him, you don’t know until it’s over. Some sessions may end up being unusable or less valuable, depending on the issue.

Unmoderated tests can also be quieter than moderated tests. We typically use the think-aloud protocol in usability testing, asking users to talk us through what they’re doing as they’re doing it. In a moderated study, the facilitator can gently nudge a quiet participant to share more about what he’s doing. In an unmoderated study, you can ask a user to think aloud, but there is no one there to remind her if she doesn’t do it.

Because of the lack of detailed follow-up, it is preferable to use unmoderated remote usability tests when the main focus of the study is a few specific elements, rather than an overall review of the site. They’re great for gathering data on a site element or widget or seeing the impact of a relatively minor change on a site.

Unmoderated studies can also be good for tight timeframes: users can complete sessions on their own schedules and even simultaneously, rather than trying to fit into scheduled time slots.

Tips for Remote Usability Testing

Practice the technology. Even if you’ve used your company’s tools a million times before, test them out with someone you know outside the company, mocking up a real test situation. Make sure the instructions for logging on are clear. Practice sending URLs or tasks to your user and made sure you know how the technology works on your end — and theirs.

Rewrite everything. Write tasks far enough in advance to pilot-test them. In a moderated session, the facilitator can get a user back on track if a task is misunderstood. In an unmoderated session, there is no safety net. The written instructions need to stand on their own. Every instruction, task, and question needs to be fine-tuned to eliminate the potential for misunderstandings. As we know from every study ever done on instructional design, anything that can be misunderstood will be misunderstood.

Be available. Even for unmoderated studies, be available by email, if not by phone, as much as possible to help with any potential user questions. In moderated sessions, log onto the testing tool early to know when your user joins the study and to troubleshoot if needed.

Recruit more users. No-show rates, for any remote study, can be higher than for in-person studies. You also don’t know the quality of an unmoderated session until you’ve watched it. It’s better to add a few more users than you think you need in order to accommodate such problems.

More on remote user testing and the relation between this method and in-person testing in our full-day Usability Testing training courses, which includes hands-on details on writing tasks, facilitating sessions, and more.


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