Category: UX advice / Research articles

The 6 step process for running free remote desktop user tests



Running user tests of your website at regular intervals is an important thing to do. It keeps actual user behaviour at the heart of your decision-making, which is massively important for a successful product.

Of course many websites have their users scattered throughout the world, so finding real customers to visit (or come to you) and do user tests can be a bit challenging. Also even if your users aren’t that far away, it’s more convenient for all concerned if you can do it online—it should take just 15-30 minutes for the test without all the additional journey time—and makes them more likely to say yes.

There are lots of tools out there that enable you to run remote user tests but they tend to cost a fair bit. Sometimes I work with clients where there is no budget for this kind of thing, so here’s how I go about doing it for free.

This is a method I’ve used to great success for testing out desktop versions of websites and prototypes. Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite so well for mobile. For testing on mobile devices I use Validately, which offers a mobile app for users to install (though falls into the bracket of costly tools).

1. Find your users

First up, it’s important that you find some real users of your product to give you the most meaningful feedback. There are many ways you can go about this on an existing website:

If you’re working on a brand new product you might have to do a bit more work to find your target audience but try and hang out where they do—look at relevant forums, Facebook groups or maybe Slack channels. However you do it, you don’t need to find many—five users should be enough to complete the test, but look for 10 and expect about 50% response rate to your email.

2. Write an intro email

Once you’ve identified who you’re going to test with, you need to send a personal email to them with an invite to help out. There are a few key things you should have in this email:

3. Create your test

You will of course need to devise your test. Make sure the users have some clear context at the beginning (what are they aiming to do on the site?). Then define what parts you want to test. Try and keep it to one user journey at a time—perhaps a purchase path or a sign up flow.

Once defined, make a step-by-step list of tasks that takes the user through that journey, avoiding using leading questions to make it too obvious. So you might say, 'show how you would find a bestselling book’ to test the search functionality and then ‘show how you find out more details on that book’ to test the product page.

About 3-5 tasks should be enough for a 15 minute test. If you clearly state what they user is looking to do from the start then you may not even need to explicitly give the user certain tasks as it’s likely they will find their way through themselves.

Skype user test with Barack Obama

4. Send a pre-test reminder

Send the user a courtesy reminder email of the call about an hour beforehand. This can also be a good time to remind them of your Skype username and to expect a contact request.

5. Fire up Skype

On the day, for the test itself, turn on Skype and give them a call. Skype is a great tool for this because it’s well established and a large number of people have an account.

Skype also offers screen-sharing functionality, which is what we’re going to use. Now there are plenty of other pieces of screen-sharing/group meeting software out there but you don’t want to waste time and cause frustration by having to get your user to download something new. Of course Skype is also free, which is part of the point of this article.

Start a video call and ask the user to share their screen with you. You’ll then handily get the view of their screen so you can see how they use your website alongside a small shot of their head, which is handy for checking their reaction to different things (helping you judge if they are happy or confused).

Send them the link to start the test and get rolling. If you’re testing a prototype or some new test functionality, you should pre-check any URLs to test servers or prototypes are working beforehand.

6. Record it

The final important step before starting is to record your screen, meaning you’ll capture the video of your Skype call along with the audio of you and them talking.

On a Mac this is nice and easy as Quicktime comes for free and has this handy feature built in. Simply choose 'new screen recording' and be sure to choose your internal microphone and keep the volume on zero to prevent feedback. If you’re on a PC you might need to download one of the many screen recording pieces of software out there–here’s a few to try.

Quicktime screen recording audio settings

As you are recording the call, you can focus on facilitating the test (i.e. guiding the user through your tasks). Then once you’ve finished you can watch it back and properly note down any usability issues or behavioural insights.


For more on this subject, check out the evidence-based UX design guide to remote user testing.

Last updated on 4 April 2018

user testing / ux / skype / screen capture / users / free / guide /

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