Have you ever landed on a website that’s just a little off? You might not be able to put your finger on the exact reason, but something is keeping you from using the site effectively. Maybe it’s difficult to navigate, or a key feature isn’t functioning correctly. It could be that pages are slow to load, or you can’t quite find an answer to the question that led you to the site in the first place.
No matter the reason, a website that doesn’t work well runs the risk of alienating site visitors. When the site in question is your own, poor function can have a direct, negative impact on your bottom line. If you hope to avoid these pitfalls, then usability testing is the solution you need. Usability can be a complicated topic, but it’s also a vital one. Your best bet is to start with the basics, and work from there.
What Is Usability Testing?
The concept of usability testing is simple. You select a group of people, ideally with no experience using your website, to test how well your site functions under the supervision of a facilitator. The facilitator provides light guidance as the testers try to navigate your site and use its features. The results will provide valuable information on how real site visitors use your website.
- You can get very specific with what you test, but you are basically looking for ease of use. Can site visitors easily anticipate where they need to go to find specific information? Does your navigation system make sense? Do they understand what each page is meant to accomplish?
- You also want to look at basic likes and dislikes. Find out which features they enjoy, and which they could do without. Be sure to ask if any particular pages or functions cause confusion, as well.
- Usability testing can be as specific as you want it to be. If you’ve just launched a new feature or see a lag in use of an existing feature, for example, you can focus testing only on how site visitors use that feature.
DIY Usability Testing
Professional help makes for more accurate usability testing, but you can actually perform some basic tests yourself. You can find qualified test-takers almost anywhere, and you don’t need a huge group to get usable results. All you’re looking for are people who have web experience, but haven’t previously visited your site.
- As this report from Nielsen Norman Group explains in beautiful statistical detail, testing your site with small groups over time is more valuable than massive, one-off tests. A group of five is sufficient for obtaining accurate data.
- Tests can run as short as five minutes, or as long as an hour. Anything over an hour will start to yield diminishing returns, as testers become fatigued by the process. An hour should be enough for a full site test.
- There are many ways to structure tests, depending on what you hope to learn. This resource from the User Testing site has some great free templates to guide you. The idea is to give users enough instruction that they can work on the right task, without actually telling them how to accomplish it step-by-step.
- The ideal testing environment is comfortable and private. This can be at a testers home, or in a room at your office. The important thing is to diminish potential distractions, as classic test anxiety can short-circuit usability testing.
- As the test progresses, you want to observe but not hover. Watch for where users get stuck or have difficulty, but let them resolve the challenge on their own.
Once you’ve received and analyzed the results, it may be time to take action. If your small-group tests reveal a feature that’s consistently confusing, it’s probably time to change that feature. Be careful, though. Usability tests work best when data is collected over time, and the last thing you want to do is fully redesign your site based on incomplete data. Usability testing is an involved process, but it’s more than worth the effort, as it provides highly valuable data that you simply can’t get any other way.
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