Quick and Dirty Remote User Testing
Issue № 306

Quick and Dirty Remote User Testing

Although more web people have basic design training nowadays, many are still unfamiliar with how to conduct user research, which is an important part of the design process. Fortunately, the internet makes it easy to get direct feedback from real users with quick, cheap, guerilla-style usability testing. Using some of the new web applications popping up, you can effectively do remote user research—that is, user research conducted over the phone and your computer. As Dana Chisnell points out, usability testing only takes a few steps, and it’s easy to do remote testing with minimal cost and preparation time.

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There are three basic approaches to conducting quick remote interface tests, whether you’re testing live websites, designs, wireframes, or prototypes. The approach you take will depend mostly on how you feel about people—do you want to talk to users face-to-face, or use one of the many new UX tools and let computers gather the information automatically? Read on to find out which route is best for you.

Method #1: if you like people#section2

Conduct and record a screen-sharing session with someone you know. This straightforward method is just as good, contrary to obsolete popular belief, as a face-to-face testing session for most purposes. No, you can’t see participants’ facial expressions, and yes, your participants must have high-speed internet; but facial expressions aren’t usually of much practical use for design feedback (you’ll have to trust me there), and high-speed internet is fast becoming the norm. You’ll need a reasonably fast computer with a solid connection, and Skype. It’s also nice to have a microphone headset so you don’t have to cradle the phone during the test.

This is how to do it:

  • Get a screen-sharing software tool. The screen-sharing application is the most crucial component, since it allows you to see what’s on your user’s computer screen during the session. We like Adobe Acrobat ConnectNow, which supports observation, chat, and webcam sharing. It doesn’t require participants to install anything. All they have to do is visit a web address, which means that you can get around most firewalls, antivirus software, and other barriers that might prevent you from screen-sharing. It’s compatible with all OS platforms.

Other popular options include GoToMeeting and LiveLook. Most offer free trials, so don’t worry about having to spend cash if it’s your first time.

  • Download a screen-recording app. iShowU HD for Mac ($30), Camtasia Studio for PC ($299) or Mac ($149), are my favorites. You can also use the new version of Quicktime X to screen record if you’re blessed with a Macintosh, but the files are gigantic. The paid tools allow you to select the portion of the screen and capture audio from the Skype call.
  • Find a pilot participant. Grab anyone who’s willing—your coworker, someone in the hallway—and ask them to wait near a phone and a computer with high-speed internet access. If you don’t want to go remote at all, just use Silverback to do it in-person.
  • Call your participant and have them share their screen with you, using the screen-sharing tool. We keep this easy-to-read URL handy to read over the phone to our participants, so you don’t have to use the long one that every online meeting generates. Watch them as they use your interface. Don’t interrupt them in the middle of tasks, even if they seem to be running into trouble or “going off-track”—it’s important to see where they get stuck. Ask open-ended, non-leading questions such as, “What’s going through your mind right now?” or “Can you tell me what you’re looking at now?”
  • Wrap it up. When you’re done, deactivate the screen-sharing software. (No uninstalling is necessary for Adobe Connect.) Be sure to thank the participant and reassure them that you can no longer see their screen. If you’re offering compensation for participation, tell them how they’ll receive it. (We like to use Amazon gift certificates, since all you need is an e-mail address.) And you’re done.

Method #2: if you like machines better than people#section3

Let’s say you prefer the logic and efficiency of computers to human beings. Conduct an automated research study. There are many online tools you can use to create quick task-based usability tests, perform card sorts, and measure analytics. Many call this approach “unattended user research,” because the tools automatically gather the feedback with no human-to-human interaction.

As you can probably guess, these methods do not give you much insight or qualitative information on why people struggle with certain parts of your interface, but they do illuminate exactly where users are going wrong. Usually they’ll track various parts of the user’s behavior and allow the participant to type in comments, but that’s it. For that reason, automated research studies are most useful when evaluating the usability of a specific feature. You lose the bigger picture of usage, which can give you a misleading picture of what your users are doing on your website.

At any rate, each automated research tool works differently, but most tools can be sorted into a few broad categories by their purpose.

Task elicitation#section4

Task elicitation is similar to web analytics, but gives users specific task prompts, such as: “Suppose you want to buy a new sofa. Where on this page would you click to find information about the sofa?” There are many variations on this type of tool: Some tools automatically monitor user behaviors; some ask users to manually indicate when they’ve accomplished a task. Task elicitation is the most direct way to gather performance feedback on a particular task, which is why it’s also the most popular.

Task elicitation tools: Loop11, Usabilla, and IntuitionHQ.

Card sorting and other formative research tools#section5

This is a remote version of a tried-and-true user research method. You give participants a stack of randomly shuffled cards, each with an item written on it, and then ask the participants to sort the cards into groups that make sense to them. The idea is to get a sense of how users naturally categorize different concepts so that you can structure your interface’s categorization scheme accordingly. You perform a card sort when you want to understand how to categorize or organize a set of elements—an issue usually related to early-stage IA design.

There are other formative design research tools besides card sorting ones: Plainframe and TreeJack allow you to test a bare-bones conceptual navigation scheme to see where users are likely to look for certain pages or content.

Card sorting tools: OptimalSort, WebSort.

Enhanced analytics#section6

Enhanced analytic tools are traffic monitoring services that give you richer information about what people do when they visit your site. Some are capable of giving you Javascript video recordings of actual usage; others make “clickmaps” and “heatmaps” that graphically visualize the most-clicked areas.

User behavior recording tools: ClickTale, LEOTrace.

Analytics visualization tools: ClickDensity, ClickHeat, ClickTale, CrazyEgg.

Regardless of what kind of automated research you do, I encourage you to do it only to supplement the kind of rich behavioral research we describe above—it’s no substitute for watching a real person use your product.

Method #3: if you like people, just not talking with them#section7

Unattended qualitative research is useful if you’ve already built some functional elements of your design or application, and you want to hear actual user voices talking about your interface, but you just don’t have the time, desire, or social skills to talk to them directly. This is a cutting-edge niche of remote research, which takes advantage of the increasing webcam and rich media capabilities many users now have. Unattended qualitative research services get users to submit webcam videos, images, and/or spoken feedback about your product.

Doing this kind of research is mostly just a matter of signing up for one of the services and writing a couple of questions for your users to answer. A serious caution: Almost all of these services supply the participants from a “research panel,” a small army of paid participants who may not reflect your real users, and who may not care about using your interface at all, both of which can affect feedback validity.

Unmoderated qualitative research services: Usertesting.com, OpenHallway, UserLytics, and TryMyUI.


For extra bonus points, do time-aware research. No matter which guerilla method you choose,  you can use an online web form to intercept qualified visitors in real time, and then call them or e-mail them right away to begin a session. This strategy is called “live recruiting,” and it allows you to get insight about the tasks that people really care about rather than creating pre-determined tasks for them. It’s the difference between watching someone manage their own finances versus asking them to pretend to. The easiest way to create a form is by using Ethnio, the recruiting tool we designed specifically for this purpose. You can also use an HTML form-building tool such as the excellent Wufoo or the form functionality in Google Docs. You can then link the form from one of your web pages, or embed the form right on the page (which is slightly more effective). (For a more in-depth discussion of recruiting, see Chapter 4 of our Remote Research book.)

Who actually does quick and dirty user research, besides the companies we’ve conducted studies for?

At SXSW this year, I attended a panel called “Your UI is Your Laboratory” with people from Wufoo and Freshbooks—two web interfaces well regarded for their user experiences. The developers were ostensibly there to talk about A/B testing but admitted that the original interfaces for both of their successful web products were informally guerilla-tested with participants ranging from the developers’ significant others to people in the hallway. In other words, Wufoo and Freshbooks developers used guerilla testing to refine their orginal core functional interfaces. Fantastic! Remote research can also be the online equivalent of grabbing people in the hallway and having them use your sketch or prototype. Stamen’s Michal Migurski, who spoke on “Not Conducting User Testing” at the February 2010 User Research Friday event in San Francisco, also encouraged putting your interface out in the world rather than doing formal testing. And the sheer number of automated tools popping up everywhere suggests something about how many lone-wolf developers are starting to do their own testing, too.

Still need convincing? Didn’t see any tools you liked? Well, fortunately for you, we’ve put together a huge Google spreadsheet of every remote research tool we know of. Check it out and go do some user research right away.

Editor’s Note:#section9

We are pleased to present a discount for Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathimutte’s Remote Research: Real Users, Real Time, Real Research (Rosenfeld Media, 2010). Save 20% with the code ALARR when you order from the publisher’s site.

19 Reader Comments

  1. Great writeup on user testing – Silverback has been my favorite, but now I have a whole slew of other applications to try out. Thanks (and thanks for the link as well!).

  2. This is a really great breakdown of a lot of different tools – sometimes it can get confusing out there with so many of them floating about, but as you rightly point out, in many cases they can serve a different purpose.

    Personally I like the tools with a lower time commitment, but of course it depends entirely on the projects you are working on, and what kind of feedback you need to solicit.

    I completely agree with your opinion about the paid panel kind of apps; I’ve always worried if perhaps those kind of panels aren’t a little self selecting.

    The good thing (in my opinion) about tools like ours (I’m from http://IntuitionHQ.com) is that you can just send a simple 2 minute tests off to the sites stakeholders and get almost instantaneous feedback about which parts of the site are or aren’t working well, and then proceed to a newer, more usable revision.

    Once again, thanks for sharing, very enjoyable.

  3. Nate,

    I enjoyed the article, thank you!

    One more tool to add to Method #3 — “Concept Feedback”:http://www.conceptfeedback.com is a design review community where websites (or other designs) can be posted for free (after giving 5 reviews) and receive feedback from a community of 6,000+ designers and developers. Reviewers are not paid, they just choose to do it for the betterment of design I guess 🙂


  4. So glad you guys enjoyed the article! Couple issues from the comments so far:

    ** Skype **
    We use Skype damn near religiously for our research calls, but find that actually calling people on Skype is more of a pain when you are recruiting from a general population. Everyone has a phone and a web browser, but not everyone has Skype running and is willing to share their Skype ID (at least for now)

    ** Other tools **
    Thanks guys for posting your various other tools – Concept Feedback I hadn’t seen yet! I will add to http://remoteusability.com/tools

  5. Hi,

    Great article. We use Netviewer Meet a lot (netviewer.com). It is designed to give presentatons online, but you can hand over the desktop and take a peek at what the user is doing. We use a regular phone for voice. The VOIP in Netviewer is crap.

    What is good about Netviewer is that it is easy to install for the user (actualy it is not installed sort of). And it works all the time, even behind the most bad ass firewalls.

    Maybe it can wordk for you.


  6. I am just starting to get into user testing and hadn’t done it much before in the past with any of my designs, being a student, but am finding it to be a lot more helpful now. This article was great! A good tool to use when testing, also, is a program called Denote – it basically lets you or the client make notes on the website, which you or whoever has access can view and then comment on or “check off” once you’ve addressed the note. I found it here: http://www.denoteapp.com. Anything to make life a little easier!

  7. I really appreciate this article because it spells out for me how user testing is approached from three different methods. Sometimes, depending on the site and service you are designing for, it makes more sense to conduct user testing through real live people, whereas, in other cases, heat map software is preferable. Being able to select and combine strategies and methods of user testing is a practice i would recommend.

  8. Hi,

    thanks for another great article. I would recommend that you try this tool: “Mouseflow.com”:http://mouseflow.com

    You get the most cost effective remote usability studies. Watch videos of your visitors, analyse pages with heatmaps and scroll-maps, watch a live-stream of your current visiting users. Free + paid plans.

  9. Thanks for the article, I’m pretty interested in usability and as i start to work on bigger projects it;s becoming more and more important (the small projects are also v important, of course).

    I wish the designer at KFC had read this article, they have a new self service checkout here in Leicester (UK), some of the menu options are very confusing and it seem to have some poor overall usability. I’m sure those guys could afford some cheap and dirty user testing!

  10. “Don’t interrupt them in the middle of tasks, even if they seem to be running into trouble or “going off-track”—it’s important to see where they get stuck. Ask open-ended, non-leading questions such as, “What’s going through your mind right now?” or “Can you tell me what you’re looking at now?”

    > So that’s all you need then? Excellent! A couple of instructions and some sort of *tool”, and you’re a usability engineer!

    > No need to worry about designing tasks, recruiting the right people – any real kind of prep. And facilitation means only two things to remember. How convenient. Analysis? Not much to that either, right? Hardly worth a mention.

    > Remember desktop publishing? All of a sudden, anybody could create a brochure or newsletter. And it showed. Desktop publishing did not convert Aunt Edna or the guy in HR into a graphic designer. And these usabilty tools are not going to turn graphic designers and deveopers into usability engineers.

  11. Great article Nate. I believe that virtual classrooms work great for remote testing too. Have you tried “WizIQ”:http://www.wiziq.com ? Although they say their virtual classroom is suitable for teaching and learning, I think it’s good for *any* synchronous communication. Thoughts anyone?

  12. Quality structured user testing is something that we have certainly overlooked in the past. We used to rely mostly on general feedback from clients and people we know who were willing to have a quick look at what we’d developed.

    We have used Forrst (http://forrst.com/) for design and dev feedback, which is similar to Concept Feedback.

    This article has inspired us to employ some of the suggested techniques and tools to improve the way we develop sites in the future. Should make testing a lot more rewarding.

  13. Thanks for a really interesting article. As someone who has been working (off and on) in UX for a good few years, it’s great that people are coming around to the idea of actually making a point of asking users what they think.

    Seems obvious but in my experience there are loads of companies who still don’t really get it. I guess part of the job of UX professionals is now to educate clients on the benefits of effective user testing.

    To do my bit, I created a remote user testing service called Kupima (https://kupima.com) which I hope offers a compelling alternative to some of the more established services. I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who might want to give it a try or review it. Of course, it goes without saying that it’s far from the only choice out there, and the most important thing I feel is that people do something (whether it’s with Kupima, a competitor or simply one of the other techniques discussed).

    The insight you can get from actually engaging with users makes it all worthwhile – and it’s a wonder that more people haven’t caught on to this idea.

  14. Hi Nate, great summary, mostly agree (as usual…:)), except for two things:

    1. I disagree with your statement that facial expressions are not important in usability/user experience testing/design (you said “you have to trust me on this…”).
    Having done thousands of unattended or unmoderated usability tests, I can attest to the fact that recording the respondent’s expression provides about 55% more information than otherwise, on average (who they are, what kind of socioeconomic background are they from, what mood are they in, are they alone or not, are they distracted, how long before a moment of frustration translates into a verbalized thought, how often frustration leads to abandonment with no comment, etc)

    2. You mention that a number of platforms, including ours, userlytics, largely depend on an army of paid testers.
    I cannot speak on the other platforms you mention, but this statement is inaccurate in our case; almost all of our respondents are recruited by us on a customized basis, and often are highly specialized B2B low incidence populations where the type of paid testers you refer to would not work well.

    In fact, this is an area where including a webcam view of the participant adds a lot of value; you can see and verify that your tester/respondent is truly your target Persona.

    That said, we do offer crowd-sourced testers where clients do not have a large budget, as well as screen recording + audio without webcam views, for the same types of situations, and for many situations, that is good enough.

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