There are a variety of ways to perform usability testing on web sites and online applications. In fact, our access to tools and testing software seems to grow month by month. However, nothing beats human testing.
Of course, when you don’t have access or the budget to sit your customers down in front of a computer to watch them use your web site, there are decent substitutes or alternative ways to get good data. Someone asked me, “Can’t we get user data from Google Analytics?” Sure, you can. But the numbers don’t have little voices that explain why the left a page or where they got confused. We can get clues from logs and data tracking but its cold, emotionless and voiceless.
Grin and Bear It
My first choice will always be a user lab. But the reality is that small and medium businesses can’t afford this type of testing. Or they think they can’t. In truth, all you ever need to do is sit people down in front of a monitor, give them a task and be silent as they attempt to finish it. Offer someone a coupon, free dinner, gift card or some other incentive to bring them in for a few hours.
Remember these points:
- Find someone unfamiliar with your business and/or web site. After a few passes (and accidental suggestions from you or others nearby), they’re no objective or brand new.
- Assign one task at a time and make it one step and simple. “Find”, “Buy”, “Look for”, “Register”, “Show me where” and “Sign up” are common tasks.
- Be quiet. Expensive labs have video cameras and software inside the computer that follow eye movements and mouse clicks. In light of investing in all of that, just sit nearby and watch. Take into consideration that people get nervous. They’re not used to your keyboard. They may not have slept well or were late getting there. In truth, these are all the tiny extras human factors love to incorporate into their testing (our emotional state and environment.) Do what you can to put your person at ease. You only want to watch. It’s not a contest. You’re not judging them. Give them chocolate or tea.
- Listen. You not only want to watch someone use your web site, but you want to encourage them to tell you what they’re thinking as they go along. Encourage them to explain, AFTER the task, why they felt frustrated (if they don’t other swear at the screen). Why did the pick a certain product? Did they get lost? Could they read the pages? Were they distracted?
The other type of usability testing that involves a human is hiring a usability consultant to perform a site audit. Ask your consultant what methods they use because there are many. I’ve always applied a “living test plan” consisting of heuristics and a cognitive walkthrough. I call it “living” because it constantly changes as new data is released or I learn more after testing different niches of web sites and find common solutions that work for them. There are thousands of web site usability heuristics according to Jakob Nielsen. He’s right, in that there are so many rules to go by for user interface, on page optimization for search, accessibility and content that it would take one person weeks to write up the test plan with test cases to get to all of them. Nobody can afford that and corporations typically have their fingers in their ears in denial that their sites should be compliant. Therefore, I customize and adapt to the type of site and tackle the most obvious areas of navigation, information architecture, SEO, persuasive design and user interface. Consultants and usability testing companies can provide more than audits. They may have access to eye tracking, click and eye recording, heat maps and remote testing tools. If accessibility is required, equipment such as JAWS is helpful.
Free UX Tools
Fortunately for most site owners, there are some nifty tools that you can use while building your site, or testing an existing web site. I have a few favorites that I’ll pass on to you:
Sizer – this simple, free little application sits in your startup task menu and is on call whenever you need it. It’s the fastest way to check monitor resolutions.
Color Schemer Online – enter either the HEX or RGP or one of them and it will convert for you. This website based application lets you lighten or darken colors and offers matching color suggestions. Remember that when picking out colors, women lean towards pastels and love the color purple, while men dislike purple and like darker colors. Men and women aren’t too keen on brown, yellow and orange. Feng-Gui- The fee version offers more data but for free you can get insight into your pages by submitting a screenshot and getting a heat map report.
Colorblind Web Page Filter is a free online based application that lets you test your web pages to see how they will appear to color blind users. There are many settings but I use the default protanopia because red is the most common “missing” color for colorblind men.
There are other free tools that test for things like browser checks and HTML and CSS validation. Testing takes time and patience and the ability to interpret the information. For example, eye tracking can show the order in which users look at a page, but it doesn’t tell us why they spent more time in certain areas that are red hot. We can guess but nothing beats live testing, in different environments, in different cultures and by applying specific demographics.
One final suggestion – Just because you see a web site do something within their design doesn’t mean it will work for you. Your goals and requirements are as unique as your business is. Be creative and always test out your ideas to see what wins you the most conversions, traffic – and adoring fans and customers, of course.