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When building interactive Web sites or applications, the success of our work is not based solely on marketing strategy and design. The real challenge is providing Web customers with clarity, control and satisfaction.

The only real way to ensure understanding and ease of use is to watch representative customers use your site—otherwise known as usability testing, a one-on-one test during which you give participants open-ended tasks to perform on your site. As they use the site, you gain understanding from their confusion.

In most cases, I see usability testing being treated as a low priority. This usually happens due to either the high cost of formal usability testing in a lab or the time it takes to conduct the tests.

The unfortunate result is that most Web sites are launched without knowing the problems that exist. Conducting usability testing early in the process ensures that you discover the bottlenecks and obstructions in your site. By resolving such issues, you will improve results on your site and offer your site visitors a better experience.

So how does one perform usability testing without investing a large amount of time and expense into the project? That's where informal usability testing comes in. A formal usability test involves a long cycle of recruiting the perfect participants, locating the best facilities, setting up the recording and documentation equipment and hiring the professionals to conduct the tests. In some cases, these formal testing projects can span months and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

By cutting some corners, you can conduct tests on your own, without the hassle and expense and still pinpoint the major issues. To simplify the process, I am going to break it down into four areas:

  1. Define tasks and location.
  2. Identify and schedule participants.
  3. Conduct the tests.
  4. Review your findings.

1. Define tasks and location

Identify the major tasks that a user might accomplish on your site. Traditionally, this is a very long process involving user personas and task analysis.

For our purposes, we will choose a few main tasks that affect the success of the Web site. This could be a basic task such as finding specific information or an interactive process such as purchasing a product.

Think about what goals or motivations people have when coming to your site, and make a list. From that list choose four or five main tasks that have the most impact on your site. For example, if you have an ecommerce site, the list might include locating desired products, purchasing the products and viewing the order status. Once you select the tasks, create a very basic outline script for the test. Each person you test individually will follow the same script.

A common script will first ask the participant to look at the Web site and provide feedback about the purpose. This is sometimes called the "get it" test. It explores how easily someone can identify the purpose of your Web site or company.

You would be surprised how many people have trouble giving an answer. Next you will create a list of tasks that the user will attempt to accomplish. Each task statement should be open-ended to allow a natural experience. For example, you would ask the participant to "find a product of interest and purchase it" instead of "search for an MP3 player and add it to the shopping cart." The latter statement is an instruction and helps the participant use the site.

After you have created a simple script, you need to decide where the test will be held. In formal usability testing, this would take place in a lab with a one-way mirror and some sophisticated recording equipment. Since we are keeping the budget low, it can be anywhere that is convenient for you and your participants. All that is needed is an average computer in a comfortable environment. You could use a spare office where you setup a computer with a comfortable chair and desk.

Once you have created a script and selected location it is time to find your participants.

2. Find your participants

Traditionally, this stage involves in-depth user definitions and recruitment. In most cases, an outside recruitment firm is hired to find the participants. Once found, potential participants must be screened to target the desired audience.

In this case we will just find some people with experience using the Internet. You only need to find a maximum of five people to participate. You can recruit friends, family, coworkers or even current customers. If you already have a site, you can randomly ask site visitors whether they want to come to your location to participate in your tests. If it is possible to easily find people close to your targeted demographic, then it will produce better results.

The participants should not be familiar with the material you will be testing. It is standard to offer each participant some compensation for their time. This is usually around a dollar per minute (including travel time). If your participants are current customers, you can save money by offering deals or discounts related to your business.

Once you have identified your participants, create a schedule and offer available time slots. Each test will take about 60 minutes, so I recommend that you leave about a two-hour window for each test. This allows flexibility if someone arrives late or if the test runs longer than expected. Make sure to leave time to review notes after each test. If you need to stretch the testing over a few days, that's fine.

3. Conduct the test

Conducting the test should be very casual and comfortable for both you and the participant. A formal test would normally include an instructor to conduct the test and a note-taker to record the findings. There would also be live video and audio recording equipment monitoring the computer screen and participant. In most cases, a few people would observe behind a one-way mirror. We just want to uncover the major issues, however, so we will keep it simple.

Before you start testing, provide a short introduction about what you are doing and why. Let the participant know you are trying to improve your site to make the experience better for your customers.

Also let the participant know that you are testing the Web site, not the user. This way he does not feel uncomfortable about making mistakes. Make it clear that mistakes are the fault of your site and will help you improve it. After the intro, it is time to start your script. Have the starting page of the Web site already open on the computer.

As you ask the participant to accomplish a task, make sure not to help when he or she gets stuck. You should encourage the participants to think out loud in order to understand their thought process. The participant will get stuck or confused often, and it is important to allow him to recover on his own.

The test should emulate a real-world example, as close as you can get it. If the participant encounters a complete dead-end and can't recover, it is OK to get him back on track. As the participant runs into problems, write down the findings in as much detail as possible. The notes should not be organized or structured, since you will do this after the test. While you take notes, do not try to write down solutions; that too would be resolved at a later time.

After the test, thank the user and let him know the feedback was very helpful. At this point, you can offer the compensation. And now is the time to organize the notes into a structured format, since they are fresh in your mind.

As the next participants arrive, just repeat the same process. You will get better at it as you go.

4. Review your findings

An in-depth review, analysis and deliverable report are usually the result of a formal test. This would include a detailed report of the findings and possibly suggestions on how to improve the issues that were identified. All we need to know is what went wrong and where the participants ran into problems. This way, you have somewhere to start when revising your site.

After all the tests have been completed, combine the notes and create a document of all the problems that were found. Since usability testing only makes you aware of the problems, the next step is finding the proper solutions to fix the problem identified. When working on larger interactive Web sites, test multiple times after you have made adjustments. (But don't test too much!)

Usability testing may not be considered a mandatory stage in the design process, but without it you are releasing the product blindly. Even a poorly organized usability test is better than no test at all.

Usability testing is well known and widely used in traditional software and highly interactive Web sites. As more people understand the impact it has on producing results, it will become a standard step of the design process.

Just remember that you don't need a large budget for simple usability testing. Make the participant comfortable, ask open-ended questions and learn from the confusion!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Nagele (cn@wildbit.com) is founder of Wildbit (www.wildbit.com), a Web software firm focused on building complex Web applications that are easy to use and understand.