The Importance of Usability Testing

No amount of SEO, paid search, or social media can get a site to rank high and convert well if the site is out of date, hard to use, or breaks often. That can be difficult for a business to accept – if you paid thousands of dollars for a new website a few years ago, shouldn’t it still work well? And you are paying them for SEO results – is pointing to the website just an excuse?

At the same time, we’ve all been there as users: wanting to buy something online, and it takes step after step while the pages load slowly and then the form is excessively long and then the payment system reloads after some inscrutable error – and you just give up. That website has lost your sale, and it wasn’t because you didn’t like their Facebook post or branding or couldn’t find them in search. The company had your conversion. But the website lost it.

It’s amazing, actually, how few business owners have sat down with their website – especially from their smartphone – and walked through the experience. They’re expecting online conversions to be 40 – 60% of their business and pay heavily to get customers on the website yet they don’t know how easy, fluid, or impossible that website experience is. So how do you improve your website at a broader level, then adding attributes to a map listing account or tweaking a title tag?

Usability testing is the way to close this gap.

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What is Usability Testing?

As it sounds: UX testing is understanding how users actually use a website. The expectation of a web designer or company for their site is not always how users interact with it so Usability Testing is crucial.

When we sit down with a user and watch them walk through the site, we’re asking about key metrics:

  • At a glance, what does this website mean to you?
  • What feel do you get for the company based on color, photos, branding,or anything else that sticks out to you?
  • Is the navigation obvious and easy to use?
  • Can you get in touch with the company?
  • Does the content build trust and make you want to move forward?
  • Can you convert easily?
  • Is there something missing that would greatly enhance the site’s experience?

But most of all, we’re listening to the user. What do they like? Where do they get stuck or frustrated? What’s hard for them to accomplish that, with some minor tweaks, could push customers to convert?

“What do they like – that’s so subjective.” That’s true. If one user says they prefer blue to orange we’re not going to change the company’s entire branding. But if all or most of your users get confused about the pricing scheme, that’s a red flag – and a wonderful insight. There’s a curse of knowledge for a lot of business owners. They know what’s supposed to happen on the site and so unknowingly leave out explanations, steps, or assistance. It’s the same reason you can read your own work twice over and still miss the obvious typo.

Why is Usability Testing important?

Those insights are what power improvements. It’s very easy for an SEO Specialist to say, hey, traffic has dropped and the bounce rate has jumped on these pages. However, it’s not as easy to point out why from the swamp of Analytics data. Digital marketing gains customers. Usability Testing converts those customers.

There is a dangerous and unstated truth in digital marketing. We are so specialized that sometimes we end up focusing on our own efforts – exclusively. Paid Search spends their time bidding, the content writers focus on the documentation but not how a person gets there, and the developer is so busy building new features that they can’t test out the old ones. There’s an unfortunate lack of attention to the ecosystem – the website itself, rather than the numbers produced.

Usability Testing is important because it puts our focus on what most customers care about and where they interact with your business: on your website.

How do I conduct Usability Tests?

The awesome thing about UX testing is that, for all its power, it’s also pretty cheap and easy to do. For further resources on Usability Testing, check out Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think and Rocket Surgery Made Easy (to which this article is highly indebted). It’s something any marketing company should be able to do. But you can also start today with this quick cheat sheet:

  1. Identify the specific concerns you have with the website. Create testing questions that tackle these concerns. For example, “You’d like to a buy a blue sparkly widget but need free delivery within one week. If there’s a price difference you’d also settle for a red sparkly widget.”
  2. Find someone who hasn’t been to your website before (or at least too often). Ask if they’d be willing to participate, reassure them that recordings will only be used by your company, and pay them for their time.
  3. Sit the volunteer down with a computer or phone – your site pulled up – and ask them the test question. Record their actions and thoughts as they walk through the site. There are two important rules for this step:
    1. Do not tell them how to complete an action. You’re testing the site, not them.
    2. Do ask them to talk aloud. You want to hear what they’re thinking about each step. (“I don’t see any price comparisons.” “I love the one-click buy.” “Where do I find sparkly widgets?”)
  4. Repeat this process for two or three test questions. At the beginning of each test, spend a little time with them on their first impressions of the home page. For example: “What do you think this website is selling? What is it about?”
  5. After you’ve run through your test questions, thank them, save the recording, and repeat for two or three other users.
  6. After testing, jot down a list of central observations. Those problems are what you’ll focus on to improve the site.
  7. Implement identified solutions, test results, and then repeat for the next few issues.

The whole process takes up just a few hours – yet can provide incredible improvements to your user experience. That’s the power of Usability Testing.

When do I conduct Usability Testing?

Given the low investment and high results, the easy answer is: constantly! But there are a few crucial times UX tests can make all the difference:

  • For a site redesign: UX tests don’t require a total rebuild, just revisions to the current site. But if you are going through a full redesign, make it best-as-can-be by testing different features and layouts early in the design process. The final product will be a better site costing fewer developer resources.
  • If traffic is suffering: If the technical elements of digital market are on-point but Year-Over-Year visits are dropping, then it’s past time to investigate the site. This should be an immediate go-to tool for any digital agency in the face of disappointing results.
  • A/B testing: Since UX tests are so small scale, they’re great for experimenting with different layouts or content before your site change goes live. Repeat rounds of UX tests can also prove the success or ongoing needs from your last round of tests.
  • Seriously, any time. It’s that useful.

How do I use the results of my Usability Tests?

After all users have walked through all questions you’ll have an extensive list of observations and complaints. Make a list of the most common or most glaring issues and then sit down with your team to determine priority and ROI. Remember: it’s better to quickly fix one issue and tackle another next week then to bog down in overcoming all seven problems at once.

If you can find the time, show your videos or live sessions with other decision-makers. There can be eye-opening user issues and this not only identifies needs and budget for site changes but also builds trust. One client I worked with had wonderful traffic but an extremely low conversion rate. Usability tests identified user confusion and problems with the forms (especially on mobile), so we made a few programming changes. Conversions shot up. Yet even before we saw results, the client’s executive was immediately onboard: they could clearly see the current problems and possibility for change. It was a powerful moment.

Usability Testing offers a lot of powerful moments. It’s fast, easy, immediate, and total User Experience is absolutely the future of digital marketing. The path for agencies and companies is clear: if you haven’t tested your website yet, start today.

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