Face-to-Face or Face-to-Screen?

The rise of remote usability testing

During some recent usability interviews for a pizza-ordering site, one participant explained that sometimes she just didn’t feel like talking to a human being, even to explain her order. She preferred to order from a web site. I smiled because sometimes I preferred to use the ATM machine in the parking lot rather than go inside and work with a teller in the bank. Sometimes machines are more efficient and just get the job done without the added complexities of communication with humans.

In-person conversational interviews are so valuable for usability research, that at first, I resisted the idea of doing research remotely, not having any direct communication with the person using the site, not even knowing who the people were, getting feedback through forms and recording behaviors through their screens. I’ve heard that 90% of human communication is non-verbal and comes from being in the same room. After all, user research is about developing empathy for people using your software. Isn’t remote research just another way we step away from authentic human interaction and fall back on digital media?