How to Usability Test Your Website

Note: This post was originally published on in 2012.

If you have a business website, it needs to be tested for usability, preferably by someone who isn’t 100% familiar with your business.

Here at 563 Media, we often work with small companies and individuals who are sure their websites are telling clear stories about what they intend to accomplish, what they’re selling, or where their companies would like to go in the future.

Usually, our clients are right–their stories are there, but often they’re buried beneath cluttered navigation, unclear mottos or tag lines, or too much text.

So when we say to our clients, “Have you tested your site?,” we don’t mean the standard usability run-through where you click everything and make sure the links aren’t broken, the site reads fine in Internet Explorer, and there aren’t any 404 errors.

We mean:

“Have you tested your website for understanding?”  

  • When people get to your home page, do they understand your mission, business, or product in under ten seconds?
  • Do they take the action you want them to take after reading through your home page copy?
  • Do they feel the way you want them to feel after they watch that video you’ve posted?

The danger with inviting your friends and family to test your website for understanding is that they’re your friends and family. They know what you’re trying to accomplish and what product or idea you’re selling. They may not get stuck when they use your website because they know what you were trying to say.

Unfortunately, what you were trying to say is not the same thing as what you actually said. This is why testing for understanding–with people who don’t know you quite so well–is so critical.

How can you test your website for understanding?

Round up some people who don’t love you (sorry, Mom!) and aren’t very familiar with what you do for a living. Ask them to test your site.

Have them start by spending ten seconds on your home page. Then ask them to write down (or tell you) what your business or product is about.

Next, have your testers navigate through your features and pages in a manner that feels logical to them. If you’re in the room with them, ask them to verbalize aloud what they’re experiencing. (“This drop-down menu is hard to use; I don’t know where to click next to find what I need.”) If they’re testing your site from home, ask them to jot down notes they can send to you later.

Be sure to tell your testers that you want to know whenever they get stuck or confused, but you also want to know when it takes them longer than a few seconds to understand what you’re telling them.

For example, are your directions clear? Are any special terms you’re using defined and repeated, so that your testers can easily recall what they mean?

Tell your usability testers you would appreciate hearing about glitches, as well: random symbols where letters should be; error messages; layout problems; and instances where pages freeze or load slowly. Ask them to share the names and versions of the browsers they’re using at the time (e.g., Chrome Version 20.0.1132.47) so that your web developer can check the code.

You can do usability testing on a shoestring if you need to. The key is to avoid the temptation to do it yourself.

Creating a great website is just like creating any other piece of content. You may think it’s clear and brilliant because it represents the culmination of months or years of conversations and effort. But you aren’t your customer or end user, and the little mistakes you’re too close to see could be just big enough, in someone else’s eyes, to undermine all of your hard work.

To learn more about how 563 Media can help you with usability testing of your site, please contact us.

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