Website Usability – Why it Matters

Icon for WikiProject Usability

Icon for WikiProject Usability (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most businesses and organisations today rely on their website as an essential marketing tool or sales portal in the case of e-commerce websites. Whatever the size and scope of your website, have you considered how usable – that is, how easy it is to use – your site is for your customers or clients?

The usability of your site matters because research studies have shown, time and time again, that if your website visitors cannot find the information they need quickly and easily, they will leave your site, probably taking their business with them. It doesn’t matter how compelling or engaging your website is. To visitors this is a secondary concern. The primary goal for most websites should be to make it as easy to use as possible.

The good news is it’s easy to test the usability of your site, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for a client over the last couple of weeks. My client, a local museum, suspected they had a few key usability issues with their existing website, and they wanted to make sure that they improved these when they redesigned their site.

Testing is straightforward and can be done in a day once your have participants recruited, and can be iterative so you can continue to re-test as your refine your designs or site. The insight you gain is invaluable, and no matter how experienced you are as a web designer, I guarantee participants will always use your website in ways you never thought of.

To conduct the usability test, you need to ask your respondents to complete tasks that are typical of visitors or that emulate what visitors are likely to do with a new feature or widget for your website. Examples might include asking your participants to find your contact details, complete an order (if you’re an e-commerce site), or find a specific piece of information about your service, such as price or availability. Then you simply observe how the participant completes that tasks, asking them to talk about their thought process and why they make particular decisions. You must not intervene in the task or you void the result for that task, but this is really the only hard rule of testing.

Sometimes it’s useful to record the screen and audio of each session, or have other members of your team observe the process. A report is useful but is not essential, and you can simply discuss the results after the participants have left and decide on a course of action then and there. You’re not looking for robust, quantifiable or generalisable results with usability testing. It’s just not practical, even for the largest budgets. But you do get fantastic insight that highlight the least usable aspects of your website, and therefore what you should focus on improving. Even results from three or four respondents is useful enough, and it’s better to have two rounds of testing with up to five users each than one big test with ten users.

You can watch a demo usability test from usability guru Steve Krug below:

So, with website usability testing being so easy and so powerful, you really have no excuse. There are excellent resources available online for you to find out more about usability testing (try useit.com or sensible.com), or get in touch and ask me more about it.

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