Remote Research


Bolt, N., & Tulathimutte, T. (2010). Remote Research. Brooklyn, N.Y: Rosenfeld Media. 266 pages.

We selected Remote Research for discussion at the November UX Book Club CU event. Nate Bolt is the president of Bolt | Peters, an interaction research and design firm. Tony Tulathimutte has left the world of user experience research and is now a fiction writer. This book is written for a broad audience, but primarily for readers who already have a general understanding of how conventional user research works.

Remote research is user experience research that is conducted through the phone and internet rather than in person. Bolt and Tulathimutte explain how to organize, recruit, and run moderated and unmoderated remote research studies. The book includes a thoughtful and necessary discussion on privacy and consent, methods of analysis, and remote research tools. You can find a similar list on the Remote Research website.

My initial assumption going into this book was that Remote Research would be a cheap way to include a large number of test participants in a study. Interestingly, Bolt and Tulathimutte argue that remote research is not necessarily cheaper. Our UX book club wondered if this assertion was partially a symptom of an agency-only perspective. While this seems like a sensible claim for a commercial researcher billing clients for their time, it seemed to us that remote research would in fact be a cheaper method for an academic researcher trying to get the most out of their grant money, for example. One of our UX Book Club members is currently designing a research study that will require remote research methods. It was interesting to discuss the practical considerations with her as it related to her upcoming project.

The most convincing argument in favor of remote research is that this method is able to intercept test participants while they are performing tasks of interest. By catching users in their natural environment as they are performing a task flow they intended to pursue anyway, remote research allows for more authentic insight into the user experience. Similarly, remote research allows researchers to test participants all over the world, rather than just a new batch of local residents.

This book convinced me that remote research is something every UX professional should be learning about. There's no question that the future of user research will incorporate many of these methods. However, the main issue I have with remote research is part of its largest selling point - What type of user would agree to participate in a study in the middle of a frustrating experience? How many non-tech savvy people will be interested in the added challenge of navigating a remote test? How can you be confident in the integrity of your test sample? Of course, these aren't new issues in user research. Similar things could be said about participants in traditional testing. (Is it an issue that all our participants are free on a Tuesday morning? - for example.) Yet, I want to believe that there is something important about in-person research. That observing facial expressions provides unique insight. That greeting a participant and talking them through a study provides valuable information about how humans interact with technology, in a way that impersonal communication does not. Though, perhaps I'm reading more into in-person user research than I should be.

For more information on the topic, check out the Bolt | Peters Remote Research website, this 2010 article by Kyle Soucy in UX Matters titled, "Unmoderated Remote Usability Testing: Good or Evil?" and Soucy's 2011 IA Summit talk by the same name.