Companies often wonder about the usefulness of usability testing for their websites. You might ask:
- “How will we benefit from usability testing?”
- “What can we expect as an outcome from usability testing?”
- “How hard is it to conduct usability testing?”
- “At what point should we test our website?”
In my experience, usability testing is one of the easiest ways to get feedback on your website to see what is and is not working. (Yes, I’m a usability expert so of course I would say this, but I still think it’s true!) Here are some answers to your questions on what you can expect from usability testing.
How Will We Benefit From Usability Testing?
It probably goes without saying that I think there are many benefits to usability testing. Some of the benefits include:
- More contact with customers: Many times a company can lose touch with its customers and users and usability testing provides the opportunity to get back in touch. You can ask questions of the usability testing participants on what they value and why they use the product. These questions and answers can make for some good quotes!
- Feedback on design: Whether you’re testing an existing website or a prototype for a new website, conducting usability testing gives you feedback on the design. Participants won’t have solutions to your design problems, but they will be able to demonstrate what’s wrong with the design as they go through the different scenarios.
- Pick out major problems: Through user feedback and actions, you can pick out the major problems of the site and prioritize how to fix them. Participants aren’t design experts and can’t necessarily solve the design problems they encounter, but you can do this after you put together all the feedback you get. You’ll see which problems were encountered more frequently and you can report on this and use it to prioritize fixing these problems.
- Baseline a current site: You an also use usability testing to set a benchmark for how successful users are on your current website. As you more forward and iteratively improve your website, you can keep running the same usability test to see if users are more successful. In this regard, usability testing is a great way to judge ROI on design improvements.
What Can We Expect as an Outcome from Usability Testing?
When I work with my customers on usability testing, one misconception I encounter is that usability testing will show exactly what is wrong with a site and how to fix it. This isn’t necessarily true! During usability testing, you’ll get a lot of feedback from the participants on things they do for their work/life/adventure and how the website fits into that work/life/adventure. They’ll give suggestions for how they would want to see something displayed. Naturally, when you get feedback from different people, the feedback will… well… differ!
For example, I was working on one usability test where the website had a bunch of boxes. Inside the vertical box, the image was on top, then the title below, then a description, then a button on the bottom. Through observing the participants, I could tell that they were looking at the image and trying to interpret how the image was relevant. What they weren’t seeing was the title! Once they gave up on the image, they might have seen the title, but the title was so full of jargon that they couldn’t interpret it. They might read the description, but it wasn’t much more useful. In the end, almost no one engaged with the boxes because they weren’t quite sure what to do. One of the 8 participants said, “I really like the image. It looks really nice.” Even though one person said he liked the image, the remaining 7 struggled with the box layout.
When you do usability testing, you have to read between the lines. It’s important to observe what the participant is doing, then look at the results across all participants and find patterns. In this case, even though one person says he likes the image, the majority of users struggled with the box (even though they didn’t realize they were struggling with it!). What may seem straightforward (“Oh this person liked the box, so the box is fine”) may turn into something more complicated (“7 people didn’t use the box. Why not?”).
You’ll have a lot of information once you finish your testing, so you’ll need to sit down and comb through it all. You can expect to have mixed results and expect to dig deeper into their meaning and the real cause of the problem.
How Hard Is It to Conduct Usability Testing?
Doing usability testing is typically one of the “easier” things in my work. Why? Because I’m not solving any problem; I’m discovering problems! I’m opening my mind to possibilities that I don’t see or understand. I’m asking others to show me how they make sense of a website and where they struggle. The difficult part in doing usability testing is creating a test plan that gets to the heart of the matter. For this reason, you want to have goals for the testing and build the test plan around those goals. Some goals could be:
- Figure out where people are stumbling in the purchase process
- Figure out why users aren’t understanding the sign up process
- Determine how readable our content is and where people are getting confused
If you want to focus on the purchase process, then a scenario in the test plan would be to have someone purchase something on the website. If the sign up process is confusing, then you might invite potential customers to your test session and take them through a scenario of becoming a customer. How does the sign up process interfere with becoming a customer? If you want to focus on readability, you might have users try to find and interpret information on a certain subject.
At What Point Should We Test Our Website?
Usability testing can be done at any time. Many times clients want to test a website once it’s in the prototype stage. They’ve redesigned a site and now want to test it before it’s implemented and set in stone. You might have an existing website and know that users are having problems with a specific aspect, but you don’t know why. You can test it before trying to fix the problem. You can also do benchmark usability testing which is a test at a (somewhat) random point in time to determine the ease-of-use of the site.
Essentially, you can test at an point in time. I’m a fan of doing it on an ongoing basis. This way you’re not overwhelmed with feedback and problems. You can judge your progress and make tweaks as you go along.
Many aspects of usability testing are under your control. Set your goals and your dates, create your test plan and execute. Analyze the results and put together themes from the feedback. Participants can tell you about their habits, how your website fits into their work/life, and how they would ideally use your site. Taken all together, you’ll be able to uncover many issues with your website as well as gather valuable insight into your users’ behaviours.
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