Book Review : Remote Research by Nate Bolt

Remote Research is excellent for an active practitioner that is preparing to, or currently conducting research in the field of usability research. Bolt successfully frames the type of work that he does, bucking the archaic state of the research industry, stagnant with two-sided mirrors, offline engagements, and limited quantitive tactics. The age of information has opened up our ability to test, survey and probe a wider number of participants than ever before.

This concept of using browser-based technology also illustrates the importance of testing in context. Like ethnographic which embeds researcher in the workplace and homes of the study participants to see and hear the habits and frustrations in the context, when they occur. This is starkly different from traditional focus group method that takes the participant out of the context of anything but sitting in a sterile room, surrounded by strangers. WIth the insertion of a single line of Javascript, remote user research will allow for a company-branded interstitial / overlay interrupt (to help alleviate any concerns of spamming or advertising) to appear on sections or pages of the website which are being tested. The technique recruits the user at their exact moment of interaction with the system, preserving the ethnographic context.

Through this interstitial, the participant is asked to provide contact information, and the research group begins a screen sharing process with a built -in camera and microphone. A small percentage of people get the interstitial, and an even smaller number of people choose to participate. With enough traffic on a website, you fulfill a relatively large number of participants fairly easily. Bolt has gone on to form a company around this technique,, where this recruitment service can be implemented on a cost-per basis.

Stakeholders are still able to watch these sessions take place, as the screen interactions. In his book, Bolt doesn’t go into the motivation and reasoning that he presented around why it is so vital that everyone involved should be seeing and hearing live research, as it’s happening. Recorded highlights are no substitute, as the empathy towards the user sometimes gets lost with the creation of a highlight reel.

If there were any drawbacks to Bolt’s book, his focus on mobile usability testing leaves a bit to be desired. This is likely due to the mobile / tablet industry still being in relative infancy, with not many options yet available. Although written in 2009, I still have not yet found much movement in the tools available, even in the three years since. To illustrate some of the workarounds in place- at the aforementioned User Research presentation, one presenter described the usage of a treadmill for a mobile device testing method. Bolt also described the ‘hugging’ hack, where the participant hugs the laptop (backwards), and points their webcam at the tablet device to show their interactions. These restrictions are partially due to Apple’s locking down of the operating system, and not allowing for a live webcam feed (as to not compete with FaceTime), nor a recording of user interactions for anything but a web browser on an iPhone.

In conclusion, if you’re looking to understand greater concepts around the research industry, or perhaps find some over-arching principles for on why one should do user testing – then this book is not for you. Bolt outlines some very specific practitioner techniques and tools that are very helpful in getting your own research process up and running. An indispensable aid when embracing browser-based testing.

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