By Frank Spillers

online user research

Summary: UX is made up of research and design activities on the whole. Most of UX can be done online, however, user research should be done in-person whenever possible-- for maximizing contextually-relevant insights, and strengthening user advocacy. In times of pandemics like COVID-19, most UX research can be handled online. We review key UX activities and deliverables to assess online strategies for maintaining your UX process quality when online is your only option.

What can be done online and what cannot?

The UX role (see list of roles) tends to involve meetings, research, design, and team-building presentations or workshops. The majority of these tactical activities can be done online. With the exception of some types of user research (user testing that requires a physical product, service or full-body experience, for example) and contextual interviews or Field Studies, which require intercepting user tasks, artifacts and memories that are place-based. Online interviews and Diary Studies can be deployed in these instances. 

Here's a table that breaks this down by common activities UX Designers and UX teams engage in:

Above: Table showing common UX team tasks and showing that most can be done online, with the exception of certain types of user testing and field studies, noted above. 

What about Remote User Research?

Remote user research has been a staple of UX activities since at least 2005. Once you understand the pros and cons of remote research, there's a lot of UX that can be done online.

Note: The term user research usually implies user testing, so always clarify because user research in UX includes two core activities: Field Studies and User Testing.  Both are equally important at different stages of a UX design creation, but user testing is easier to do online typically. 

1. Remote User Testing: 75% Yes; 25% No. User testing has been virtualized completely and is full of a crowded marketplace of online testing solutions, each with different pros and cons-- which we will not cover (or endorse) in this article.  Remote user testing is usually cheaper and easier to manage for internal teams running regular UX practices. By remote user testing, we mean a 3rd party service that facilitates the test for you. Several these days allow the researcher to facilitate the test, which is always preferable.

If your 3rd party user testing software allows, choose Moderated testing 80% of the time. Automated testing cuts you off from interacting with users. Automated also means less depth of examination of issues discovered, and less chance to gain empathy through that exploration. It can also make your UX team lazy (automate research vs. "getting your hands dirty" dealing with actual users). 

Moderated remote usability testing is perfect for going "online" with your UX testing efforts. Even simple web conferencing software (cheapest option) can suffice for user testing, as well as user interviews (video not essential, and can intimidate users, so get advanced consent). Online needs analysis (user interviews) can be conducted with any audience-- unless it cannot. 

2. Remote Field studies? 50% Yes; 50% No. User interviews are usually not conducted online. We get better data in-person leveraging Rapid Ethnography techniques. A small number of robust online user research (Ethnography) solutions exist, unlike with user testing which has many established solutions. It is important to realize that user interviews and non-test based research lose the power of contextual insights when moved online, so most UX pros like to do user needs analysis in-person.   

With user needs analysis, where you would normally perform a field study, you can do that online with any web conferencing software, or combining that with a Diary Study (Webinar and eBook). Diaries provide self-report experience logs over a 1-2 week period. This is becoming our new default during COVID-19. 

A note on recruiting: Quality user targets matters (see this post on recruiting). If you use a 3rd party user testing solution be careful of limited screening criteria. The key is to recruit people who do the thing you are studying (moot point for B2B). 

A note on getting too cozy online: At Experience Dynamics, we normally recommend user interviews in-person (most of the time) and remote Automated user testing as an adjunct to your regular usability testing activities. It's ultimately a quality and user advocacy issue: You want yourself and your team to be close to users (that's right, "Get your hands dirty"). The reason is you get rich interaction, more empathy, and better observation, as anyone who has done this research will attest. Moreover, you get the detection of unspoken and nonverbal clues or unanticipated insights. However, during a pandemic, that's not possible. But when the pandemic is over, you want to sustain best practice and not run on the emergency generator UX techniques, which your boss will wonder why you can't remote and automate all UX research. 

Remember UX research is ultimately about enriching UX Designer and team learning. It's about good decision-making for your team and stakeholders. You're not gathering analytics, you're gathering understanding, story experiences and pain points. 

Summary: In a pandemic like COVID-19, do all user testing online either leveraging a software solution or just using web conferencing software (even cheaper). Aspects of Field studies can be moved online in the form of user interviews and Diary Studies. Remember what you are gaining and losing and educate your team, boss and stakeholders and be prepared to do in-person interviewing again, when conditions are safe.