Digital/Online Marketing Communications Strategy

The DIY Guide to Web Usability Testing

By on November 29, 2009 in web user experience with 2 Comments

Usability is a simple word that’s tough to pin down.

If you define it as “capable of being used” the implication is, you can either use something, or not. Pretty cut and dry.

Ah, but there’s more to it. A car, for instance, can operate perfectly fine; or it can start and stall and start up again. While you can still use the vehicle, it’s hardly an ideal ride.

Same goes for a web site — your preference is for a smooth experience.

But how do you know if your web site is a well-oiled machine rather than a clunker? Not by looking, that’s for sure.

You are not the target audience

Having what appear to be the right elements does not ensure your site offers an ideal user experience; as in, it’s easy to use and intuitive.

The sticky wicket here is, because you created the site, it all makes perfect sense. Your judgment is clouded by already knowing what everything means and how everything is supposed to work.

News flash: You are not the target audience — web visitors ultimately decide if a site works. If they stall out, they’re apt to go elsewhere.

The do-it-yourself method to web usability testing

You can spend a lot of money to hire someone to conduct usability tests of your web site where techniques may involve sophisticated labs and analysis. That’s great if you can afford it. Budgets, however, often don’t allow for the expense.

Still, it’s important to do some kind of usability testing prior to launch. You didn’t put up a site just for show, right? You want it to deliver the goods; tell your story, sell your product or service; in a way that’s meaningful and satisfies website visitors.

The good news is, you (yes, you) can do a decent job of usability testing for low or no cost. You don’t even have to test a lot of people. Patterns in response arise after questioning five to eight individuals.

Notice I said individuals. The best way to do this is one person at a time; where the participant is comfortably sitting at a computer while you’re observing how they use and perceive the site. Groups or even two people at once are not as accurate because one person will influence the other(s). It’s not intentional on anyone’s part, even so, that’s what happens. One at a time, got it?

Also, if you have a few target audiences, or personas, as is now the popular parlance, test five per persona. Each group has different expectations — you want to see if the site satisfies these varied wants and needs.

When soliciting volunteers — yes, many will do this for free, just ask — indicate you’re looking for feedback on a web project. As opposed to saying you’re doing usability testing. Testing implies there are right/wrong answers and the word usability is not commonly understood.

The key is to ask open-ended questions

To prepare for testing create a set of questions. You can have a pre-determined order, however, you are also reacting to feedback, so be flexible — better to ask questions in a way that makes sense for how your test is going rather than stick to a rigid scheme. The main thing is to reiterate there are no right or wrong responses, and you must ask non-leading open-ended questions.

So, rather than, “Do you think this is a good design?” go with “What is your impression of this site?”

The response may or may not have to do with design. That’s fine. You’ll find out what people think from a variety of perspectives  — extremely valuable information. This will also open up other avenues for questioning.

If, after asking, “What is your impression of this site?” the reply is, “I like it.” Then you go, “Why?”   On the other hand, if the response is “It’s confusing,” ask “How so?”

More good questions:

  • What do you think this site is for? Why do you think so?
  • Who do you think would use this site? Why?
  • What kind of product/service do you think is being offered? Why?
  • What do you think this button/link is for?
  • What do you like best/least about the site?
  • If you could improve one thing about the site what would it be?

Don’t take it personally

Take notes. Stay objective. Remain neutral regardless of feedback — never argue with, praise or help the participant. Do not explain why something is the way it is. You’re looking to extract information. If a person asks “What’s this for?” respond, “What do you think it’s for?

You can ask participants what they think a particular button or link is for, to discern user expectation. If a person thinks a link will lead to something it does not, ask why they think it will go to there. This helps refine nomenclature. Even seemingly obvious words may not be clear to your audience.

When trying to determine if web architecture offers a logical path, or looking to see how users would likely complete a task, ask “How would go about doing/finding “x”? (fill in “x” as applies to specific circumstance). Closely observe the process and make note of areas of difficulty — here’s where you’ll want to make adjustments before the site goes live.

Test early, and preferably more than once

It’s ideal to catch problems early on, before too much coding is done. In fact, for truly low budget early-stage tests use Photoshop versions of web pages.

If you can manage a series of tests, all the better. Use static pages to start, get feedback, make adjustments and re-test to see how the changes fare. Hold off on the actual development (coding), until you feel you are close to the end-result, or at least as far as you can go until you need to test out a series of process flows.

It’s good to know what’s right, and even better to know what’s wrong

While it’s nice to hear what’s right with your site, it’s equally important, if not more so, to learn where things fall short. Where are the trouble-spots, design issues and misinterpretation of intent?

Now, go forth and test. Know in your head to welcome responses that point to problems. Discover glitches and make fixes. After all, once the site goes live, hang-ups and stall-outs represent lost opportunity.

For additional resources visit:

Usabilty.gov: Your guide for developing usable and useful Web sites

Useit.com: Jakob Nielsen’s Website

Usereffect blog

– Deni Kasrel

Is this information helpful? Do you have experience with do-it-yourself web usability testing? How’d it go? Comments welcome.

Related article:

The Most Overlooked Step To Website Success

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About the Author

About the Author: Deni Kasrel is seasoned (slightly spicy) specialist in digital/online communications. .

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There Are 2 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Good reminders and all the reasons why the web design/development process should neither be rushed or considered finished. Thanks!

    • Deni Kasrel says:

      Deb,
      You are so right. Even after launch, a site’s usability should be revisited from time to time. The web is ever-evolving in standards, preferences, etc.

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