Let's suppose that the "usability" mantra you've heard over the past few years has finally convinced you that conducting user research with your target audience is an essential aspect of your company's Web site development efforts.

We'll assume that you want to uncover major usability issues before a new site launch or you need detailed customer feedback regarding a live site that just isn't making the grade.

What are your next steps? How do you manage a lab-based usability project from the early planning stages through delivery of a great findings report for the development team?

Here are five things to consider that will help you plan a successful test, set realistic expectations with your colleagues, stick to a budget, and wind up with actionable results.

1. Evaluate your objectives

Lab-based usability testing is about keenly observing and listening to participants as they attempt to use an interface. It's qualitative research. Expect the moderator to elicit lots of think-aloud feedback and straightforward opinions.

If you're objectives are to quantify user preferences or present statistical data, a lab-based usability exercise is not the appropriate research solution for your needs.

Your overall objectives should include these:

  • Gathering in-depth feedback on whether participants can navigate your site and accomplish common tasks such as finding key information, using a search function, completing shopping cart checkout and contacting customer service

  • Determining whether participants clearly understand the value proposition of your interface

  • Ascertaining whether your site content (and possibly a competitor's) is relevant and easy to comprehend

  • Learning whether participants are helped or hindered by the site's visual design

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Lon Taylor is a principal usability consultant with First Insights and cochair of the New York Research Special Interest Group. He can be reached via www.firstinsights.com.