In-person vs. remote user research. Advantages of each method

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This year we are experiencing a lot of changes in all the areas of the UX sector (and our lifes in general) and adapting our user research methodology to the new circumstances. 

Even though remote research already existed way before 2020, it seems it has now become an established methodology and proven its effectiveness. At TeaCup Lab, we have been doing remote studies for years and during the COVID-19 emergency we have tried new research and testing techniques, co-creation tools, etc. We have also confirmed that the users are able to adapt to this format and offer the information that we need. 

In this article, we’d like to reflect about what we can expect from this methodology and under which circumstances we can consider it a valid alternative to in-person studies. 

Even though every UX technique has its particularities, we can actually detect certain advantages and disadvantages that apply to all of them depending if they are carried out in-person or on remote mode. We list a few of the most important differences below.

Advantages of in-person research

  1. Holistic vision of the user’s behaviour: being in contact with the user allows us to see and hear the user’s behaviour. But also to detect non-verbal communication that could go unnoticed during a remote study. Moreover, it helps create a more natural and empathic context.
  2. Incident proof lab: in both scenarios, there is a possibility that something can go wrong (who hasn’t experienced a last minute prototype fail?). However, when we are researching remotely, there are more chances for something unexpected to happen. Also, these events might take some time to fix. Many of these problems could also happen in in-person studies. However, our lab is specifically prepared to avoid these types of incidents. For instance, the video and audio recording systems are connected through cable. So, in case of an electrical problem or blackout, the recording systems would still work and it would be possible to continue the study. We also have more devices and alternative stimuli (in case the one that is being used fails) and direct contact with the participant. All this facilitates and accelerates the problem solving process.
  3. Better preparation for the study: when we work with users, it’s essential to meticulously prepare the lab and to be prepared for any circumstance. For in-person studies, we can prepare everything in advance since we don’t depend on the user. They don’t have to recieve or install anything on their devices and we can test internally beforehand. Besides, we can preview possible issues like construction work in our building and adapt the dates of the study to avoid noises or interruptions. In a remote study, this cannot be done. 
  4. More device variety: in our lab, we have all types of computers and devices. We don’t depend on the ones the user might have at home. This enriches our studies and also avoids potential technical issues. 
  5. Easier moderation: it is easier to connect and keep the attention of the participants during in-person studies. Participants can ask doubts at any point and they usually feel they have more responsibilities to contribute to the value of the study. This makes the moderator’s job easier. The interaction is much richer which allows the researcher to extract more valuable insights.
  6. Smooth group dynamics: specifically in group studies, dynamics help generate ideas and opinions that can contribute highly to the study. These dynamics are easier to perform successfully in a lab, where all the participants get to know each other smoothly and feel more comfortable to share their opinions.

Advantages of remote research

  1. More schedule flexibility: in online studies, it’s likely that there is more availability both for the moderator and the participant. Therefore, there is more schedule flexibility. Also, it’s less likely that there might be delays (there are no traffic jams, difficulty to find the premises, delays on the public transport, etc.) However, preparation is necessary and it’s important to have backups in case somebody doesn’t “show up” to the session.
  2. Cost saving preparations: in remote studies, there are no costs associated with the physical space. And the conditions allow for an indefinite number of observers. 
  3. The space can be more similar to the real use case: the user is in an environment of his own choice. This scenario is probably closer to their natural use environment compared to the one that is recreated in the lab. Therefore, it may be easier for the user “to play the part” and offer less biased or conditioned responses. 
  4. No recruitment limitations: in remote studies, we can reach any type of user, from any location; not only the ones that live in the city where the lab is located.
  5. Recruitment is cheaper: both the recruitment process and the incentives are lower in remote user research than in in-person studies. This is because the participant does not have to move, there are no lab costs, etc. So we are asking for less effort on the participant’s side.

Below you will find a brief summary of all the advantages of each methodology according to the different phases of a UX Research project:

 

RESEARCH PHASE IN-PERSON REMOTE
Participant recruitment
  • Flexibility with the delivery of incentives (cash, gift card, coupon, etc)
  • Access to users with a wide demographic variety without assuming extra traveling costs
  • More availability
  • There is less effort required for participating, therefore, the incentive is smaller.
Setup and organization
  • There is no connection or band-width problems
  • Being in contact with the participant facilitates problem resolution
  • Participants don’t have to  use their own device or to install any kind of software or prototype. 
  • Alterations or noises can be controlled (like nearby construction work) and the lab is specifically prepared to optimize the sound of the study.
  • If we are testing a prototype, it’s easier to guarantee confidentiality since the prototype would not be installed in their device.  
  • Less likely that there are delays (there is no traffic jams, difficulties to find the lab, delays due to public transport, etc)
  • There is no need to book a room/lab to carry out the session
Study Preparation
  • It allows to prepare the stimuli beforehand
  • More availability of devices and resources
  • There are no space limitations for observers or participants. 
Moderation
  • It’s easier to keep the participants attention than through a screen
  • It’s easier to connect and create a comfortable environment for the participants
  • A controlled environment helps the participants to stay focused
  • The user is in a familiar environment, therefore it could be easy to “play the part” 

In conclusion, it is not only important to choose the most appropriate User Research technique for each project or situation. It is also key to correctly choose the methodology we will use: remote or in-person. Additionally, we must pay special attention to the tools we use in case of online or remote user research projects, since they might also affect the outcome of the sessions. In our next article, we will talk about the different implications of remote vs in-person research for each technique and list a set of tools our team has been using in the past months.  

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