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Let’s look at the brighter side

Let’s look at the brighter side.
Conducting remote usability testing with informal caregivers in times of COVID-19
By Srishti Dang Published 19.06.2020

There is no country in the world that is not affected by the pandemic, COVID-19. The world is slowly adapting to the new concept of social distancing. Many countries went into lockdown and some still are in lockdown, people are staying at home, and if they dare to step out they are required to keep a distance from each other. As a Ph.D. researcher, I am no exception. Social distancing does not just mean working from home or not meeting your colleagues at work, it also means social distancing from conducting any human-related study and from your human participants.
But, with no visible end to this pandemic and knowing that personal interaction and communication is the heart of human-related research, where are we heading to?

One thing is for sure, we are experiencing ‘unusual times’ which gives us unique challenges when it comes to conducting human-related research. However, as Finley Peter Dunne said
“The world is not growing worse and it is not growing better, it is just turning around as usual”
Therefore, it’s time for us to adapt to these ‘unusual times’ to make it more ‘usual’ , at least in the field of research. To make it happen, technology could be our most trusted hope for meeting these unique social distancing challenges. The good news is that we were never as prepared with respect to the technology as we are today. So, let’s look at the bright side and see in the light of technology, what benefits remote usability research has in store for us.

So, what is remote usability research?

Let’s start by talking about usability research in the first place. Usability research involves the evaluation of the products or services by testing it with the actual users. Conducting this research allows researchers to gain an understanding of how the users interact and perceive their products or services. However, if this research is conducted at a distance where the researchers and participants do not interact in-person, it is called remote usability testing. It is typically conducted via a computer or a phone, allowing the researcher to see or hear exactly what the participant sees or hears with the help of different online tools or software.

Benefits of conducting remote usability research

Currently, I am designing an online tool for informal caregivers (i.e., people taking care of their loved ones in case of any illness or disability), this online tool will help them in taking control of their emotions and well-being in different caregiving situations. For my research, soon I will be starting with a usability testing of the online tool i.e., evaluation of this tool with the actual participants, informal caregivers. Considering the COVID-19, I may have to resort to remote usability testing , keeping this in mind let’s reflect on the pros of conducting research at a distance:

Home is ‘COMFORT

With remote usability testing, users have the familiarity and comfort of their own setup, with respect to their:
a. home environment: Firstly, participants, especially informal caregivers who have to be with their loved ones most of the time, may feel at ease in taking any research activities at their home. This implies they can participate in the study as well as be with their care-recipient in case of any emergency. Secondly, people change their typical behavior when they know they are being observed. This is called the “Hawthorne effect”. With remote testing, where the researcher is nowhere close, the participants can express themselves in a natural way without suppressing their typical behavior.
b. study set-up: As researchers, we always want to be prepared for our study with all the recent technology, fast speed laptops, and fancy systems. However, it is the question of whether the participant is comfortable with using these systems for the first time.

From my past usability testing experience, I have heard a lot from the participants saying:
● I use a (mac, desktop, pc)
● My keyboard is slower/ faster or smaller/bigger
● I use a different mouse
Thus, remote testing gives participants the opportunity to use their own systems for the study, making them feel comfortable and at ease with the study set-up.

Make your research ‘GLOBAL

Pervasive Computing specialists Velda Bartek and Deane Cheatham from IBM quote that
“The obvious, and greatest, the advantage to conducting usability tests remotely is that it makes a larger and more diverse pool of participants accessible”.
Therefore, allowing your product or services to be evaluated with the worldwide audience. Nowadays, a lot of online platforms are available especially for conducting usability remote testing, such as GoToMeeting (, ZoomUser (, which allows the researcher to efficiently conduct usability testing by:
a. easily connecting to the participants online
b. sharing the tool to be tested with the participants and giving them the control to navigate through the tool easily
c. capturing their online activities by recording their screen with explicit consent
d. smoothening the analysis process for the researcher by summarizing the collected data

You ‘SAVE’ time

Imagine after the tough phase of recruitment, you arrange a time slot with two participants on the same day. As you want your participants to feel comfortable in their home settings, you plan to visit their place for conducting the study. “BOOM”, now you spend 2-3 hours traveling to conduct 1 hour of study. On the contrary, if the same study had been planned online, you would have saved an insane amount of time. Now, I leave it up to you to make a judgment for your own study, whether taking the study at a distance could have been equally efficient?

Does that mean it’s time to ditch in-person research altogether?

My answer to this is a big NO. Though there might be a lot of hidden benefits of remote usability testing and you get decent information from your participants, the online screen sharing cannot substitute for the richness of information you get when you yourself are present with the participant. You receive contextual details for e.g. the physical environment and its relation with the participant only when you meet the participant in-person. Overall, you don’t have to choose between remote or in-person research beforehand. You should have a good idea of whether or not remote research will suit your study. But with the COVID-19 crisis and what all remote testing has to offer us, let’s give it a try because as it is said, the show must go on, therefore,

Recommended reading: 1) Bartek, V., & Cheatham, D. (2012). Experience remote usability testing, Part 1: Examine study results on the benefits and downside of remote usability testing, 2003. Available at www-106. ibm. com/developerworks/library/wa-rmusts1. 2) Black, J., & Abrams, M. (2018). Remote usability testing. The Wiley Handbook of Human Computer Interaction Volume , 277.l

Srishti Dang Srishti is an early-stage researcher and a Ph.D. candidate at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) in the Netherlands. Currently, in her Ph.D. project, she is investigating the individual differences among different groups of informal caregivers in designing eHealth interventions.

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Conducting remote usability testing with informal caregivers in times of COVID-19