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Webcams in Remote User Experience Testing - Advantages and Drawbacks

featured / user experience / eye tracking / usability

When it comes to UX testing of desktop websites and prototypes, our preference as UX researchers is to conduct moderated sessions in the lab because we collect richer qualitative data; however, remote moderated sessions have their own advantages. For starters, it's generally less expensive in that you don't have facility costs. It also allows you to obtain a more geographically diverse sample, because it eliminates the requirement that your participants be located within a certain distance from the facility. Lastly, it also helps mitigate lab effects because participants will (ideally) be interacting with the interface in their natural environments (1).

The advantages of remote moderated testing are well-known, but some aspects that don't get discussed enough are the technical requirements and the necessary equipment. In order to view the participant's screen, you'll need some kind of screen-sharing software. The participant will need to have access to a high-speed internet connection and a headset with a microphone or a phone line for audio. These requirements are near impossible to get around, but one piece of equipment in which the utility is more research question-dependent is webcams.

remotetesting

Webcams provide a couple of advantages when running remote moderated UX test sessions:

  1. Webcams enable researchers to monitor participants' facial expressions while they're interacting with the website, much like we do when participants come into our lab. By monitoring participants' faces, you're often able to tell when they're frustrated or confused, even when they don't verbalize their thoughts at that particular instant. This enables you to probe about said frustration or confusion during the task, which could result in gleaning additional qualitative data that you would have otherwise missed if the webcam wasn't there.
  2. Webcams also allow researchers to provide stakeholders with a better viewing experience. We always provide stakeholders with the ability to watch sessions live, either at our lab or remotely using video streaming software. By enabling a webcam, stakeholders are able to see participants interact with the interface, resulting in a more robust viewing experience than they would have by only viewing their screen.

Despite these benefits that webcams bring, there are a number of advantages to not requiring participants to have one:

  1. Requiring one more piece of hardware increases the chances that something will go wrong with the technology. With all the advantages of remote testing, technological issues inevitably arise because we do not have control over participants' internet speed and computer performance.
  2. Webcams interfere with the participant's natural environment. One advantage of remote testing is that participants are interacting with the stimulus in their natural environments instead of in a lab setting. By using a webcam, participants are astutely aware that they're being watched, resulting in some of the benefits of being in their natural environment being lost.
  3. Webcam requirements make it more difficult to recruit participants. People perceive webcams to be somewhat awkward, and some people do not like using a webcam when interacting with strangers. Therefore, it's more difficult to recruit participants to do a webcam study than to do one without them.

So when should we use webcams in remote UX testing and when should we not? As always, the answer will vary by study. At the end of the day, if the research will benefit from including a webcam then we'll move forward with that approach; however, depending on the study, it may very well be better to conduct a remote UX study without one.

  1. US Department of Health and Human Services. (2007). Remote Testing. Retrieved from http://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/remote-testing.html

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