Digital/Online Marketing Communications Strategy

Why What People Think of Your Website Doesn’t Really Matter

By on June 19, 2010 in web user experience with 0 Comments

I’m noticing more clients say they want a user-friendly website.

That’s good — it means more people realize it’s important to know how well a site works for end-users.

But understanding what makes for a valid usability test? Well, that hasn’t caught on as much.

Even attractive websites have usability problems

This came to mind following a presentation I attended earlier this week, where a web design shop showed off a new site they’d built for a local non-profit corporation here in Philadelphia.

This new website is much bolder and better organized than the old one. It’s sharp, all right.

Even so (in my opinion), there were potential usability issues; especially with certain labels in the primary navigation. During the question and answer period I asked if the design company had conducted any usability testing, and if so, how that went.

People who are too close to your organization do not provide objective feedback

Turns out, there was no budget for usability testing. The non-profit organization had, however, asked employees and stakeholders what they thought of the site and the response was overwhelmingly positive.

That’s hardly surprising. As noted, the new site looks sharp. But sending out a link to a website and asking people what they think of it is not a usability test.

Also, neither employees nor stakeholders are primary end-users here. Interested parties, yes — but not the main people the site was built for. They’re insiders who know too much about the organization and its product offering to offer impartial feedback. Their opinions hold limited weight.

The true test of a website is how it works for end-users

Then too, opinions only count but so much.

Because, when you do usability testing, while you may ask participants what they think of one thing or another, the real test comes from seeing how people engage with the site. You want to know:

  • Can users figure out, on their own, what everything means?
  • Can users find the information they’re looking for? How do they react to that information? Does it live up to or fall short of expectations?
  • Can users accomplish specific tasks? Or do they get stuck along the way?
  • Are users satisfied with their overall experience with the site?

It’s test. Not of the participants, but of the site.

Even when testing real end-users, what people say they want to do, and what they wind up doing, may be different. Intent does not always match action. The only way to truly know how someone will use your website it to watch them in action.

There’s a reason it’s called usability testing

If you have the funds to hire an outside consultant who understands the ins and outs of usability testing, go for it. They’ll give you an objective read of how your site works.

If budgets are strapped, take matters into your own hands.

For pointers on how to go about it read my post: The DIY Guide to Web Usability Testing.

And remember, while it’s helpful to know what people think of your site, there’s a reason it’s called usability testing. You’re observing how well the site works when in use.

– Deni Kasrel

What are YOUR thoughts about this post? Comments welcome.

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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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  1. True and correct. I especially like this part: Neither employees nor stakeholders are primary end-users here. Interested parties, yes — but not the main people the site was built for.

    This is true for text, too. I always recommend that people invite strangers, not insiders, to read and comment on comprehension.

    Nice work, Deni.

    • Deni Kasrel says:

      Susan,

      Right — usability issues cover the gamut: navigation, design, images text (both the words and how they are formatted), and more.

      As you infer, there is a level of comprehension of text that insiders may take for granted. Things like industry lingo, acronyms, tech-speak may not be so clear to end-users. Having outsiders take a look (or read, as the case my be) is a good idea. It’s another aspect of a good usability testing program.

      Thanks for making this important point.

  2. Laura Silverman says:

    In addition to perceiving testing as expensive, another reason people don’t want to do usability testing is that they’re afraid of what they might learn. The beauty of testing is that often the fixes are cheap and easy… often users just need clearer language or directions.

    • Deni Kasrel says:

      Laura,
      Bingo on both counts. Fear can be a reason why some shun usability testing. But as we know, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away.

      And yes, thanks for pointing out that fixes are not necessarily expensive. Sometimes a simple tweak will do the trick. However, not testing and otherwise letting problems persist can be quite costly. Better sites with your same service or product are just a quick click away.

  3. I agree with the headline of the blog post, I disagree with the basic premise. Sometimes bad usability is much better for the success of a website. My favorite example is plentyoffish. The thumbnail pictures of members are terrible. This is on purpose because visitors who want to actually see what the other member looks like have to click on the picture. This increases the page-views = more money from their advertisement partners.

    I think usability is an extremely important factor for creating a successful website, but it is only one factor. In my humble opinion the only way you can find out what works is by actually testing it.

    • Deni Kasrel says:

      I took a look at plentyoffish, and at least on the sign-up landing page the photos are OK. They’re small, and clearly not professional quality, but you wouldn’t expect high-end photos on a dating site. In any case, a small photo, does not automatically result in bad usability. If site users understand that they need to click on a picture to get a better view, and it does not bother anyone to do so, then it’s not a usability problem.

      Meanwhile, absolutely, the only way to find out if a site works is by testing. One of the subheads to this post reads: The true test of a website is how it works for end-users. We are in agreement on this point.

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