The movie Glengarry Glen Ross taught us Always Be Closing. In the world of web design, the mantra is Always Be Testing.

Yet, it’s not always clear how to go about testing your site or how to know what exactly you’re testing for. Fortunately, we’re here to provide the who, what and why of usability testing.

 What is Usability?

Before we examine the components of website usability testing, let’s define it. Jakob Nielsen says:

Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word "usability" also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process.

Usability experts agree that usability testing includes the following five components:

  1. Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  2. Efficiency: How fast can experienced users accomplish tasks?
  3. Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, does the user remember enough to use it effectively the next time, or does the user have to start over again learning everything?
  4. Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  5. Satisfaction: How much does the user like using the system?

Why is Usability Important?

The goal of usability testing is to identify any usability problems, collect quantitative data on participants' performance (e.g., time on task, error rates), as well as determine user satisfaction with the website.

Put simply, if a website is difficult to navigate or doesn’t clearly articulate a purpose, users will leave. Making it so they don’t leave, makes testing websites a necessary task.

For some, usability testing can seem daunting, but it can be done fairly easily if you know how. Of course, it’s also a process that can be comprehensive and costly if you don’t know what you’re testing for or what you’re trying to discover.

Monitoring usability can even be misconstrued as a waste of time by some, but Gerry McGovern assures us that

The biggest challenge a website manager has is to understand how humans work, not how content management software or search engines work.

By measuring the previously mentioned five components, you can learn how easy your site is to master or more importantly, how easy it isn’t. By gathering this data, you can help evolve your website into a more user-friendly site, which ultimately can affect your business’ bottom line.

Tasks First, Design Second

Ideally a well designed site means that users not only get treated to a pretty interface, but they are also treated to an interface that's easy to navigate and information that helps the user complete a specific task, whether it's buying shoes or reading local news. Yet, websites, no matter how graphically pretty, don't always make it easy to complete these tasks.

Gerry McGovern (via an interview with Jared Spool) says that in order to meet the needs of the users, making task completion must be the primary objective for designers.

"Don't manage the technology; don't manage the content; don't manage the information; and don't manage the graphics," Gerry says, "Manage the tasks."

Once the task is established, design, technology and content fall easily into place. For sites that didn't design with the task at the top of their list, usability testing is especially important.

When Should You Test and How?

Always Be Testing. No website is perfect, but every website should be evolving. User behavior can change depending upon the age, experience and interest of a user.

It used to be that websites aimed to be easy enough for our moms to use but then moms got web savvy, and so now our benchmark for ease of use has become dependent not on the ability of our least capable user, but rather the most proficient one.

Ideally, usability testing is done before a site launches, and then many times after. Jakob Nielsen says that the best results come from testing no more than five users and running as many small tests as you can afford.

Usability testing is both an official and unofficial process. During the design phase of a site, designers and information architects have researched the needs of a site’s users, as well as the company’s. Once developed, sites are usually released in beta to an exclusive group of users, who test a site and submit feedback so that final tweaks can be made to the site before officially launching.

However, testing is also done every time a user submits feedback. From customer phone calls and emails, to tweets and texts, it’s important for companies to monitor feedback to ensure that their site is performing optimally.

Usability Tools and Tricks

Over the past decade, the marketplace has been inundated with tools and services dedicated to usability testing. With so many from which to choose, it’s hard to know which ones are helpful.

Over the next few weeks, CMSWire aims to highlight tools designed to streamline usability testing, methods aimed at revolutionizing the process and common mistakes to avoid. Here are just a few vendors that we'll be investigating: 

  • Quantivo: uses behavioral analytics to uncover the latest behavioral patterns exhibited by their customers, online or offline, across sales, marketing, customer service or other touch points.
  • OpinionLab: provides page-specific, opt-in customer-feedback system helps many of the world’s top brands collect, manage, and leverage input from engaged consumers.
  • Userfly: provides instantaneous web user studies by recording user visits and letting users play them back to see every mouse movement, click and form interaction.
  • ClickTale: a subscription based tool that tracks mouse moves, clicks and scrolls, creating playable videos of customers’ entire browsing sessions as well as powerful visual heatmaps and behavioral reports that perfectly complement traditional web analytics.
  • Five Second Test: allows users to test usability that help you measure the effectiveness of your designs.
  • Feedback Army: a low cost services that lets users submit questions about their site and receive 10 responses from our reviewers.
  • Chalkmark: a pay-as-you-go service that lets users run tests on UI prototypes to answer any questions about usability.
  • ClickHeat: an open source platform that provides a visual heatmap of clicks on a HTML page, showing hot and cold click zones. 

In the interim, it’s important to remind yourself that usability testing is not extra curricular. It is an essential component of design and can help set your website apart from the competition’s. No matter the time or expense set aside for testing, a website should not be left to grow stale on a shelf.

A website is a living, breathing organism that thrives on feedback. Don’t just rely on users for input though, internal users should consistently use their sites to improve their functionality. All the hardwork that went into designing and developing a website is for naught, if you and your colleagues are not engaging with it on a regular basis.