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Beyond that, having the ability to back up your designs with solid research enables you to offer authentic solutions that are truly strategic. Clients tend to like that. It moves your work from the “pretty pictures” arena into the world of sound, effective business tools. It helps to position you as a valuable partner rather than simply a rented pair of hands and a keyboard.

The information you gather will allow you to much more accurately make sound design decisions such as positioning elements on the page, choosing images, colors, typography that will be memorable to the user and motivate them to take action.

Usability testing isn’t just the domain of the mega firms and companies. An independent designer with a little savvy can obtain good information that will help to target their work and bring better results. A little bit of something is always better than a whole lot of nothing. Contrary to popular belief, simple, but valuable testing can be done without breaking the bank.

What The Heck Is Usability Testing?

It’s always best to start at the beginning and the beginning of usability testing is a definition. Those fun-loving folks at Wikipedia provide us with a nifty one:

“Usability testing is a technique used in user-centered interaction design to evaluate a product by testing it on users. This can be seen as an irreplaceable usability practice, since it gives direct input on how real users use the system. This is in contrast with usability inspection methods where experts use different methods to evaluate a user interface without involving users.

Usability testing focuses on measuring a human-made product’s capacity to meet its intended purpose. Examples of products that commonly benefit from usability testing are foods, consumer products, web sites or web applications, computer interfaces, documents, and devices. Usability testing measures the usability, or ease of use, of a specific object or set of objects, whereas general human-computer interaction studies attempt to formulate universal principles.”

The second sentence of their definition is paramount. Direct user input certainly seems like it would be pretty important and it is. Yet many designers, particularly freelancers and small shops, never get that input. If they’re lucky, they might get some audience research in the form of a design brief or sales data from their client. Or, they may (and should) tap into their instincts and experience when developing a site. Both are better than nothing. But getting information straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, is not only valuable, it’s often enlightening. Just because a design is excellent and useful to you and your client, doesn’t mean it will be to visitors and users.

Humans are weird critters. We find ways to do things and solve problems that suit our individual needs. Often though, our particular solution to a challenge isn’t always something that other humans would think to do. When it comes to designing websites, designers can have a tough time maintaining their objectivity. We sit in front of our computers more than most. Usually a lot more. Often, we’ll think, “gee, everybody knows that,” or “… it’s obvious how this works.” The problem is, they don’t or it isn’t and often both.

In my business, I do some training and various other client-on-their-computer related stuff. So, I get to look over peoples’ shoulders and I’m often amazed at what I see. Here’s a case in point. I had a client, a bright guy with loads of business savvy. Yet, when I was meeting with him and asked him to pull up his site, he went to his favorite search engine and typed in his business’ name.

He clicked the link to his site in the search returns. When I asked him why he didn’t just use a bookmark or type in the URL, he told me that’s how he always brought up his site and he didn’t know what a bookmark is or how to bookmark sites and pages. Apparently, bookmarking was a bit of a foreign concept to him. Scary? You bet. But behaviors like this are often the reality. Similarly, when conducting a usability test, we may find participants navigating and performing other tasks in ways we would have never thought to do.

Designing The Test

Usability tests follow a common format. Sure, a test might be formal or informal or the elements might have different names, but they typically follow the accepted process:

• Develop a test plan
• Choose a testing environment
• Select participants (the users)
• Prepare the test materials, questions and such
• Conduct the sessions
• Review what was learned with participants and observers (if any)
• Analyze the findings
• Report the findings and offer recommendations

All that might conjure up a word in your brain and that word is, “expensive.” “Time intensive” also comes to mind, but that’s two words. Testing can be wildly expensive or fairly inexpensive. It depends on the scope and goals of the test and, of course, how deep your client is willing to dig into their pocket.

For most freelancers and small shops working with smaller companies an informal, budget-conscious test is likely in order.

Start by developing the test’s goals. What are you trying to accomplish and why? What questions will you pose and who will be the participants? What methods, tasks and tactics will you use to get the needed answers?

Other questions to ask while planning the test are:

• Where will you host the sessions? Will you use a formal usability testing lab with all the bells and whistles, yours or your client’s facilities? Maybe simply tapping into an online forum or discussion group will suit your needs.

• Do you need to record the sessions on video?

• Who are the desired participants? Do they share common job titles and functions, demographics or behaviors, such as computer use and savvy? Perhaps this is a “duh!” statement, but these folks should match the target audience for the site. So, enlisting your friends, siblings or great aunt Matilda probably won’t yield any useful information.

Give careful thought to what information you want to gather before the test and how you will handle the information afterward. These may include click, mouse and eye movement tracking, ease-of-use, time to digest home and other page content, do users follow an intended path, etc. For example, let’s say one of the main goals of the site is to have visitors contact the site owner for more information. Does that happen in real use? If so, how easy or difficult is it for the user to follow that path? If not, what are the users doing instead?

You’ll also want to develop a checklist to help ensure nothing is missed during the session. The more information you can gather from the test participants the better. Usability is the title of test but by asking the right questions you can also glean quite a bit of information about how well the site meets the design and overall business goals, how well the content, headlines and images work, if it’s memorable, etc.

Following Up

As mentioned, after the test sessions review what you’ve learned with team members and other concerned parties. From the information gathered, follow up with team discussion and analysis. Develop theories about why this or that happened and the probable causes of frustrations and problems. Ideally, your testing facilitator will ask this of the participants, but if not you’ll need to theorize, otherwise known as “taking your best guess.” An informed and educated guess, but a guess, nonetheless. With theories in hand, you can begin to work out solutions to design challenges and present those solutions to your client.

If you’ve implemented the test well, your client will have a hard time arguing with the findings and recommendations. Facts are facts, after all.

If all this seems out of your grasp, fear not. Remember that a little bit of information is always better than a lot of nothing. The former provides you with ammunition to create a strategic design. That latter provides nothing except maybe a not-so-educated best guess, sometimes called the “shot in the dark.” Remember that you’re a designer, programmer or, perhaps, a bit of both. You’re not a clairvoyant. Okay … if you happen to be clairvoyant, my apologies and more power to you.

There are several ways for a designer to get some solid information. As mentioned, online forums and discussion groups with participants who match your test’s needs can be used. Or, you can create a Facebook group and invite people to participate. Another option is creating a survey-type site for your test. With a bit of creativity you can find a low-cost option for your test.

Speaking of online test options, there are numerous usability testing services on the Web. UserTesting.com is one. For the paltry price of $49 US you get video of a visitor speaking their thoughts as they use your site and a written summary describing the problems they encountered.

Another is Silverback. Silverback is a downloadable application for Macintosh to run user tests. Since many designers are on the Mac platform, Silverback is something of a natural. With it a designer can capture screen activity, record video of participants’ faces, record their voices, and control recording with the built-in remote. A great feature is that it’s all exportable to Quicktime. The application offers a free trial for the first 30 days. The full license is $69.95 US.

A quick search for “online usability testing services,” or a similar string will yield many additional services. Many of these testing services are more than affordable, even for the tightest of budgets.

At the end of the day, Web designers who offer their clients usability testing can go a long way toward separating themselves from their competition. Plus, it provides a method for making design decisions that are based on facts and not guesses. That, in turn, can significantly increase their value in their clients’ minds.