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Usability Studies: A Moderated vs Unmoderated Approach

By Samantha Owyang

So, it’s time for your next (or first) usability study! The first step towards gaining the UX research insights you are looking for will be to start by picking the most appropriate research method for your project.

Usability, broadly, is how easily users are able to interact with a product, design, website, etc. Usability studies or testing, is a UX research method of understanding users’ behavior and preferences by presenting participants with tasks and observing how easily they are able to interact with your product or design. These studies can lead to valuable insights that help you evaluate your product, identify pain points, and understand key user flows.

With usability studies, the big question then becomes, do I choose a moderated or unmoderated approach? And lucky for us, both can successfully be conducted remotely. Choosing an approach will depend on your specific project constraints or requirements, but let’s discuss in what situations each might be more useful:

Unmoderated Usability Studies:

1. For Gaining Authentic User Behavior. People aren’t often browsing a website with someone looking over their shoulder - or in today’s remote world, watching their every movement through a Zoom screen share. Unmoderated interviews give us insight into more natural user behavior. Participants will often feel more comfortable in their own environment and without someone actively watching their every move. Researchers can then later observe how participants moved through tasks, the difficulties they ran into, and their instincts and choices in trying to solve those problems.

2. For Quick & Specific Feedback. Short unmoderated usability studies are great for getting feedback on a specific part of a design or website. Setting up a couple of tasks and follow up questions for a focused topic are perfect for collecting insight quickly and efficiently. Simple, uncomplicated tasks or journeys ensure that your test will perform fine as an unmoderated study, as participants should be able to understand their tasks and complete them without additional guidance.

3. When Tight on Time or Costs. As a researcher, unmoderated studies cut out some of the workload. All you need to do is launch the test and allow participants to complete your tasks asynchronously. This often means you can get results back faster than moderated studies. Unmoderated studies tend to be cheaper as well, since the flexibility makes recruiting easier and the participant compensation will be less than that of a live interview.

Moderated Usability Studies:

1. As a Tool for Discovery. Moderated usability studies can function as in-depth interviews with your participants. This is great for discovery and capturing more information than what's on the page - what are needs, drivers, barriers, and so on within the experience? As the participants answer questions, you can prompt them to expand on their ideas. This will help you get at the answer to the “why” questions you are asking. 

2. For Dreaming Up New Solutions. When your team is working on a product concept and are looking for user input, moderated usability studies are great for understanding why existing problems occur and what users are actually looking for. Being able to have a more natural and flexible discussion with participants will help you really understand your users.

3. For Comprehensive Findings. Moderated one-on-one interviews also tend to be longer than unmoderated tests. Being able to cover a larger journey and touch on more of your objectives and topics result in findings that are more comprehensive. With one-on-one interviews in usability studies you can more easily ask users to perform certain tasks, guide them on the right path, and have them move from topic to topic. These deeper insights will come when participants share their thoughts and opinions as you go and as you urge them to expand on their feelings, such as questions like, “What do you mean by that?”

Be assured that no matter the approach you choose, conducting any type of usability testing at all is a step in the right direction. And as you continue to develop your product, you will most likely conduct both moderated and unmoderated usability studies at some point or another.

Looking to get started on a usability study? Reach out to CXperts at and we’ll be happy to jump right in.