In-Person vs. Remote Usability Tests: How User Research can be done in a social-distancing world

Words by the UX Research Team   Graphics by Ajj Morales
Words by the UX Research Team  
Graphics by Ajj Morales

As UX Researchers, we believe that the best way to gather data when trying to improve a product is to put it in front of people who are going to use it— the end users. We show it to them, ask them to use the product, and observe their behavior through a methodology called an In-Person Usability Test.

Usability Tests help us understand how real customers will respond to the product, specifically what they are experiencing during usage. From these tests, we are able to gather insights that can improve the user experience.

But during these trying times when social interaction between researchers and users is not an option, we must leverage technology and adjust to the circumstances through moderated Remote Usability Testing.

In-Person vs. Remote

How does In-Person Usability Testing differ from Moderated Remote Usability Testing?

“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.”

— Nielsen Norman Group

Even when physical distance isn’t a deterring factor, sometimes Remote Usability Testing is the better option. To further discuss the differences between these methodologies, we listed down key features that help us which kind of testing is appropriate for the research.

In-Person UT vs. Remote.png

In-person Usability Testing

Non-verbal Communication

It is easier for test facilitators to read the user’s body language. You can observe how their facial expressions correlate with their actions and words; i.e. if they tense up in frustration but don’t voice it. There is immeasurable value in witnessing these cues.

When face to face, you can also easily recognize an appropriate time for probing or follow-up questions after tasks are completed. This allows the researcher to control the pace of the test, as to not overwhelm the participants.


Socio-Economic Accessibility

Test participants don’t need to bring their own machines to the testing center. This allows for an easier recruitment of participants in the lower socio-economic brackets who may not have adequate testing resources in their homes.

Participant reach can be limited by their physical location especially in South East Asia where access to internet connectivity may vary depending on socio-economic background of the target user persona.

Controlled Test Environment

By having the test participant come into our office for a usability test, test facilitators can control the test environment, getting rid of any form of distraction.

Early Development Testing

If the product to be tested is in an early state of development, there user paths might not be complete yet. The participant might run into a dead end on the prototype and not be able to resolve the issue. This relieves the client of the pressure of having a prototype that’s 100% complete for testing, encouraging them to test early in the development phase.

Remote Usability Testing

Human-Computer Interaction

Remote testing allows participants to use their own devices, like 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 insight into how people work with their machines is valuable.

User Limitations

Recruitment may be limited to people who can use technology effectively or have the capacity to own the required equipment and gain access to the internet.


Lack of Non-Verbal Communication

It can be difficult to know when to ask a question in a remote test. Silence on the other end of the line may be caused by many different factors like, the user is confused, immersed in content, looking around the page, distracted, or experiencing technical lag.

Technical Difficulties

Difficult to troubleshoot any problems participants have with the remote tools needed to conduct the study. Users don’t have real-time physical support if they can’t get the technology to work and begin the test.

Data Security

Security could be compromised if testing sensitive, privileged, or intellectual property, but if you are doing a ‘lightweight research’ meaning if you are looking for quick iterative usability feedback it is very effective.

Holding Effective Remote Usability Tests

Although Remote Usability Testing may have some drawbacks, there are many ways to ensure that the Test is effectively implemented.


  • Prepare introductory materials so the participants will know what is expected of them as well as what they can expect from you.
  • Provide the participant an easy to follow instructions when the test requires additional apps or tools such as LookBack. Assure them that you will be with them every step of the way.
  • For Client Observers— Set expectations of the available features that can be used through Lookback.


  • Have a way to reach the participant via email or phone in case there are issues with screen sharing tools.
  • Have an alternative video conferencing method handy, in case there is an issue. Be ready to jump to Google Hangouts, Skype, etc. if needed.
  • Participants in a video call will give more thoughtful responses and be open to unpacking their thinking if they can see who they’re talking to. When cameras are off, it’s easier to brush off questions or oversimplify responses.