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Why You Need Usability Testing on Your Website

Charlie R. Claywell
Morae manager graph
Morae manager graph

You've designed your new website and are ready to launch, but will users find your site easy to use? Can they quickly and easily find what they are looking for? You can find out through usability testing. Simply put, usability testing measures the quality of your design from the user's perspective.

How Usability Testing Works

When a user visits your site, there are certain actions you want the user to take. Since a user has endless options, the inherent challenge of the Web is keeping users on your site. If they are unable to easily find what they are looking for, they will leave. With usability testing, you observe real users as they try to complete pre-selected tasks. By doing this, any design issue that is hindering the user will be exposed so it can be corrected.

Observe Users in Action

Since your goal is to create a viable site, you'll want to watch a group of representative users as they navigate predetermined tasks. If participants quickly and easily accomplish a task, your goal is met. However, if they struggle, you can fix the problem before launching the site.

Find Common Task Weaknesses

On any site, users need to repeat some tasks and this cannot be complicated. For example, if you have an eCommerce site, creating a seamless way for users to place items in the cart or to view items in the cart can determine the success or failure of your site.

In a usability study, you might instruct users to to complete this type of task from various pages and stages of the site. Watching their attempts at completing the task will tell you how easy and intuitive the interface you designed actually is and will identify tasks you may need to simplify or make more obvious.

Get Feedback on Look and Feel

Just because you or your design team believes you have an incredible design doesn't mean end users will agree. Since you have chosen representative users to test the site, the feedback they provide on the look and feel is priceless, even if it is negative. Because of this feedback, you can tweak the look and feel to be more in line with what your users expect.

Five Testing Methods

Usability testing can be as expensive or inexpensive as needed, but all of the methods can provide valuable information. Each of these methods follows the basic format of observing representative users performing representative tasks.

1. Paper Prototyping

The paper prototyping approach usually uses a notebook with tabs to simulate the proposed website. A tester is given a set of actions to perform and then they 'browse' to that page by finding the correct tab inside the binder - and then the page inside that tab. As they do this, they are observed to see how quickly and easily they can find the content.

Sometimes this method may just involve providing users with a wireframe of the screen, then asking what they would click on to do an action.

A major advantage to this approach is the low cost. Time, energy and effort have not been expended, and possibly wasted, on a digital design that potentially needs major revisions.

2. Self Walk-Through

As the name implies, this is where the observer sets up a usability test situation with realistic tasks, and then performs the tasks as a user, noting any issues they uncover.

This can also be done as a group, with an observer overseeing the actions of the participants. If you choose this option, be quiet and let the users talk. You do not want to instruct them on how to accomplish any of the tasks. It is best to test them individually so they cannot collaborate with others - forcing them to resolve any problems on their own. Any time a tester receives help, whether from you or a fellow tester, the results are tainted.

3. Interview

With this method, the user performs predetermined tasks while being observed, but the testing period is immediately followed with a question and answer session. The company is able to get more insight from users on why they performed the tasks in the manner they did.

Due to the one-on-one nature of this study, the observer can ask very specific questions based on what he or she saw the user do. Observers sometimes use a questionnaire to gather information so the data collection is more structured.

4. Software Tools

When you do a user test, you can use software to collect data in addition to your observations. Usability software can capture video of the users' screens, record their mouse and keyboard clicks and record their voices as they speak.

  • Silverback software delivers most of the usability options you need to test your site. At less than $70, it is a relatively inexpensive option. The software captures the user's keyboard/muse actions and facial expressions, and the software will record the user's voice, all of which is exported to QuickTime for viewing. The major downside of the software is it's designed for Macs and there is not a PC version of Silverback.
  • Morae is considered by some as the PC equivalent of Silverback. It allows you to record and observe users, then analyze the collected data. In the latest revision, Morae has included a chat feature so observers can instantly communicate during testing without interrupting the participants. A key feature of this $1,500 software is the centralized data collection feature that allows data to be easily shared, graphed and studied so design changes can occur quickly.

5. Expert Review

You can hire a usability expert to evaluate the site. The key advantages to this method are quick turnaround time and the capability of conducting the test remotely.

Five Places to Find Users

When attempting to identity your design's most important usability issues, experts say five users are enough since they can be expected to uncover 80 percent or more of the usability problems. Instead of spending money for additional testers, conduct several tests with five users and revise the design between each test. The more versions you test the better.

When you are ready to test your site, you can find testers that are basically free to high-end options, depending on what your site requires and whether you are testing the site's initial draft or the final product.

1. In-House Personnel

Representative users for some of the initial tests, like paper, interviewing, or the self walk-through, can come from inside the corporation since you are simply trying to establish basic navigation and an understanding of how someone other than the designer views the site. However, when you chose these individuals you still, as much as possible, want to stay with the confines of your target group. You probably don't want someone at retirement age trying to navigate a site that has a target audience of 20-year-olds.

2. Advertising

For any of the tests, you can always advertise locally to draw in potential testers. It is best to advertise in the medium most likely to attract your target audience -- if you want individuals interested in the local music scene, then radio advertising, Facebook or notices at local music venues are great ways to attract representative users. Another popular way to get users to test an active site is through pop-up surveys. A pop-up window will ask the user if they will answer a few question once they exit the site, allowing you to ask very specific questions.

3. Freelance Sites

Websites like and are just a few of the freelance-based labor pools where you can find testers available for hire. These sites list each individual's job history (for that site) and compensation requirements. They also allow multiple individuals to bid on jobs. You post the work you need done and then review the candidates that offer their services. While you can target for gender, age and possibly for salary, you may have a harder time validating a person's hobbies or interests.

4. UserTesting

UserTesting is used by Google, Apple, Yahoo and other major corporations and is a very straightforward way to get quality testing without having to fully understand usability testing. For less than $50, you can create a usability test from a template, or build your own from scratch. Once the test is completed, it will be presented to representative users from a database of more than one million testers. Within one hour you will receive written answers to your test questions and a usability video to watch. For an additional fee, you can receive a custom report filled with actionable items to be solved.

5. uTest

NetFlix, Google and Microsoft are just a few clients that use uTest, a subscription-based service. The company offers survey-based tests with targeted focus groups based on age, education, hobbies or other relevant attributes. You can also purchase a usability audit from their panel of usability experts. They do not list prices on their site, but the One Million by One Million and Read Write blogs report that the monthly cost starts around $1,500 for one test per month. To get an exact price for the service you need, either use their online price wizard or contact a member of their staff.

Before You Build

An inexpensive way to get valuable design information is to research several sites in the same field as yours - so you are not 're-inventing the wheel.' Observe what works and doesn't work on those sites before beginning your design. This can save you the time and expense of solving usability problems that have already been rectified by other companies.

Usability Matters

Several components exist on a quality site. In a nutshell, though, a site that is successful from a user's point of view allows them to quickly find desired content without forcing them through a bunch of unnecessary hoops. A site with quality usability is also aesthetically pleasing and has easy-to-remember navigation cues - so if users don't visit your site for an extended period of time, they can still easily get around when they return.

Why You Need Usability Testing on Your Website