No excuses – budget usability testing

Ignore website visitors at your peril. That was the message Natasha Lampard gave participants at the Engage your community conference last week.

Nathasha, former head of user experience at TradeMe and web usability advocate, says if your website isn’t designed with your users in mind it’s simple: they’ll leave.

Ostentatious descriptions of usability are common, but don’t be put off. The idea at the heart of usability is removing friction visitors encounter when they’re trying to achieve something on your website. Whether it is donating money, signing up to a newsletter, comparing prices or any other task, Natasha says people should not be made to feel stupid or fail.

It’s a mindset as much as a technical challenge. Natasha likened it to inviting people over to your place. As host you proffer tea, solicit conversation and show people where the bathroom is. Online it is curiously similar where website owners or custodians want you to come to their place. Regard for others by displaying courtesy and manners is crucial.

Building usability into a website development process isn’t just about talking to users when you’ve almost finished building your website. It can be included along the way, as the step-by-step usability guide produced by shows.

When it comes to usability testing Natasha suggested a guerilla approach. Even simple, DIY testing with 4-6 people can bring dramatic improvements to your website.

This idea is not a new one. Web writing sage Rachel McAlpine shared her thoughts on DIY usability testing in about 2002 (see The Hey, You! user-test in action, Web site usability testing: recommended procedures and Rough and ready website usability testing).

I’ve used this guidance, which includes coaching on how to set up sessions, elicit feedback with prompts and decide on priorities. It works. As a result of testing I’ve addressed problems with terminology, the location on a page of key tasks and a lack of contextual information.

An added cheap tool in the usability toolkit was introduced by Nathan Donaldson, who was a guest speaker in my “Getting the quality website your organisation deserves” workshop.

Boost New Media, which Nathan runs, wanted a way to simplify the collection of user feedback on websites as works in progress. IntuitionHQ provides a tool to track where users actually click on a pages in response to instructions to complete key tasks (eg click where you think you sign up for the e-newsletter).

Whether the tasks are completed by 10 or 200 people, the results show where clicks cluster and the outliers. The heat maps, which are like abstract splatter art, can then be analysed to identify improvements.

Anyone can trial IntuitionHQ for free, with each test costing just US $5.

Regardless of the methods you use to garner feedback, it’s important to plan usability in from the start. Some of the testing you may do yourself, other parts may be included in the brief for your paid or volunteer website designer, or you may contract a specialist service. Just remember, as Natasha says “lets give people a break and give them what they want”.

PS: I will be running the “Getting the quality website your organisation deserves” workshop in 2010. Watch this space.

PPS: Natasha is Senior VP of Webstock, two days of standards based web design, good coffee, conversation and trends 18-19 February 2010 in Wellington. Early bird registration ends 4 December.