Knowing what's on your website is important, but sometimes that familiarity can become a liability, especially when you are trying to improve the usability of the site. Visitors come to your site to see if you have the products or services they need. If your website is counterintuitive, hard to navigate, vague, or confusing, they will quickly leave for your competitors.
If your website analytics show short site visits and significant attrition after just a few clicks, your familiarity can be compromising your ability to identify problems. You are too close to it. You can easily overlook issues that may be immediately obvious to a potential customer who visits your site for the first time.
Three elements of usability testing
The solution is simple and insightful. Usability testing can mitigate the blinding effects of familiarity. To conduct these simple tests, you will need these three elements:
- A few volunteers who are not familiar with your business and website, and are willing to act as test subjects.
- A list of questions (known as a test plan) you want to ask each test subject about your website.
- A moderator or two, who will spend 15 minutes with each volunteer. The moderator(s) will ask the questions, observe the volunteers’ responses, and take notes.
Seven recommended questions
We recommend having your moderator(s) ask these seven questions as the basis of your test plan:
- What is the first thing you notice on our home page?
- What business are we in?
- Where are we located?
- What are our hours?
- What products or services do we offer?
- What is our specialty?
- Why would you choose us over our competitor down the street (or online)?
A few additional questions can then be asked to address specific concerns you may have about your website. To develop these questions, think about what your visitors typically do on your website and the challenges you suspect they may experience. Suppose you have a small lumberyard that delivers to four of the small towns nearby, but not to another town a little further away. You might ask: “You live in Smithville and need a load of plywood delivered. Do we deliver there?”
Finally, if you have an ecommerce site, ask each of your test subjects to complete an order for a popular item while they narrate their experience and your moderator takes notes.
How usability testing works
Test subjects will sit at a computer that displays your website. Your moderator will ask them questions and the testers will try to find the answers by using your site. Before asking the first question, the moderator will ask the test subjects to think out loud in order to observe their experiences: “If I click this About Us link, maybe it will tell me where your stores are located. Nope, that didn’t work… maybe this page will tell me… no, not there either.”
Your test subjects’ willingness to think out loud is essential to improving your website, yet this can be a nerve wracking or challenging behavior for many people. To help your subjects become comfortable with this, your moderator will request that they think out loud as they complete a mundane task. For example, ask your participants to get a cup and fill it with water, talking through each step. Have them narrate what they are about to do, and what they are doing as they do it. Ask them to tell you what they anticipate will happen next.
Once you get to the website evaluation questions, your moderator will ask your volunteers not to try too hard to find the answers. Remember, real website visitors won’t go to extraordinary lengths either to find the answers they need. If your website confuses them, they will just move on to your competitor’s site. Assure the subjects that they are not being tested; if they feel confused or can’t answer a question, it is because the website needs work.
After the test
Give your test subjects a small gift to thank them for their time. Offer them coffee and doughnuts or a gift card from a local store or restaurant.
Meet with your moderators to review the notes they took during the tests and make additions and revisions so that the final notes are thorough representations of their findings. If there were two or more moderators, conduct this process as a group. It is all too easy to forget crucial details, so we suggest doing this immediately after the conclusion of the testing.
Your testing may reveal issues with your website that now seem glaringly obvious. Seeing test subjects struggling to answer a simple question has that effect on business owners and managers who have become “too close” to their own websites. Don’t worry; you’re not alone! Building an easy-to-navigate, intuitive, and clear website is a process.
After you finish testing, use your newfound knowledge to improve your site. You may be surprised at what a difference a few simple changes can make. If you make many changes, you may find it helpful to conduct another usability test. Once you have seen the metrics come in following the first round of improvements, find a new group of volunteers and repeat the process.
A client of ours recently remarked, “Websites are a lot like humans. They are a continual work in progress, and they require many sources of constructive feedback in order to evolve.” The more you improve your website through usability testing, the more you’ll agree.