In the late 1940s twin ocean liners were constructed, the “Independence” and the “Constitution”. In of themselves, these sea-faring vessels were no more remarkable than any other ocean liner in existence. This little fact aside, they were important nonetheless, just not for any reasons pertaining to maritime travel.
What set both of these ships apart was the design process used to develop their state rooms. Part way through their construction, celebrated industrial designer Henry Dreyfus was contracted to help design the ships’ state rooms. It is the approach that Henry Dreyfus took to designing these rooms which ensured the two ships would always have a place in a certain kind of history book.
Dreyfus took an unusual approach to the design of the staterooms. What Dreyfus did differently was construct eight prototype staterooms in a large warehouse. He then invited a series of travellers to stay in the rooms for a time, bringing along all the things they would normally take on an ocean voyage. As they lived in these quarters, Dreyfus’ team observed the way the rooms were used and were able to make recommendations based off their findings. From available storage space to the placement of lights, the team were able to improve the base design by observing how its intended users actually put the room to use. It was, in effect, the world’s first documented case of usability testing.
What is Usability Testing
At its core, usability testing is simply checking the efficacy of a particular design when in the hands of its final users. That design could be something as complex as a credit card application process to something as seemingly simple as the layout of a room.
The goal is to understand how a particular design helps or inhibits its intended use. By observing interactions with sample end-users design can be improved to ensure it not only fulfils its intended purpose but does so in a manner compatible with its use.
As you can imagine, usability testing has significant application in the web design space. Websites are an interface; that is, they have direct interaction with their users. Given most websites exist to fulfil a purpose beyond teaching people how to use a website, ensuring your site’s design is intuitive and simple to use is vital if the intended goal is to ever be realised.
Usability Testing and Conversion Rate Optimisation
There has been a tendency in Australia to equate usability testing and conversion optimisation. Indeed many of the country’s first ‘conversion rate experts’ were simply rebranded ‘usability testing experts’. Perhaps these statements were not intended as a ruse, but the fact remains: While related, conversion rate optimisation and usability testing are not one in the same.
Conversion happens when a variety of factors come together. It is the culmination of a variety of forces including psychology, language, visual design, content, functionality and ease of use. It is really only in the latter that usability testing can provide insight, although in this regard it can be an especially power tool, if used well.
It’s important to realise that usability is just one aspect of the conversion journey. This is important not just to distinguish between the two disciplines but to properly understand how one informs the other.
At its core, usability testing is about identifying problems, not fixing them. This is not a negative, obviously you can’t fix a problem until you are made aware of it. The point is that usability testing only provides a start point. It will not take you the entire journey, for that you need someone who understands conversion enhancement so the solution implemented not only fixes the usability issue but does so in a way that supportive of the conversion process on your website.
Usability and Data Analysis
Data analysis is a critical part of any optimisation process. Without measuring performance and related factors, it is impossible to tell if you are really improving. But analytics data is not a replacement for anything but analytics data.
Website analytics is focused on what has already happened. It tells you what is going on but rarely why. For instance, you can look at your sales funnel and note that people seem to drop out of the process on your registration page. Does that mean there is an issue with usability there? Certainly that ‘could’ be the case but it may not be. You may simply be asking for private information that the visitor is not willing to give, or you may be failing to mention the privacy of what information is entered or any other number of things. Analytics has let you know a problem exists but as to its nature, the data remains relatively silent.
Usability testing can be assisted by analytics data. It can help you spot where potential usability concerns may be located on your site. However, it always requires additional analysis beyond the figures alone to produce meaningful insight.
The Necessity of Usability Testing
It’s unfortunate, but website design is frequently done in a vacuum. This is not a sign of deficiency, but rather a reflection of the realities of getting such a project out on time and on budget. Inevitability aside, the fact still presents an issue for anyone attempting to run a business (or part thereof) online.
When Alkemi reviews a website from a conversion perspective, we tend to pride ourselves on our ability to determine the personalities of the person(s) behind their development. The reason we are able to do that, is that humans have an innate tendency to understand our world as being made up of people like ourselves. When a person says “this is a design for everybody” what they often mean is “this is a design that I’d really like”. Thinking outside of your own mindset is a difficult task for anyone, yet this is what is really needed to make a website that truly appeals to all.
Website usability suffers from a similar problem. The people involved in the design of a process of interface have a level of intimacy with the project that does not align with that of the rest of the population. With that in mind is it any wonder that creators of, and those closely attached to, any project will, at the outset, believe it to be pleasantly ‘usable’? Of course the processes are intuitive to the creator, they designed them, they are a reflection of the way ‘they’ think and operate.
So how do we overcome this inability to put ourselves ‘in other people’s shoes’? The answer is quite simple, we do exactly what Henry Dreyfus did with his state rooms. We get people to use our tool and judge its fitness for purpose off that as opposed to our own biases.
The Usability Testing Process
Usability testing for websites consists of a series of clearly defined steps. The steps are simple but to get the most out of your usability testing, it is critical that each is done correctly.
- Obtain a testing audience
- Clearly define goals and tasks
- Observe interactions
- Analyse performance
Obtaining a testing audience
When selecting your test audience you need to ensure that the audience is a) disconnected from the subject and b) representative of a cross section of your intended market.
The former is important to ensure your analysis is free of biases. Even someone who wasn’t directly involved in the development of the website but has an association with the business is going to make a less than ideal candidate. Brand knowledge or an understanding of a business’ non-online systems is going to make a poor test candidate. Those biases, even though removed from the specifics of a website, are going to influence the way information is interpreted and used. Such biases are unlikely to be present in your target audience.
The latter is especially important. To use a somewhat trite example; imagine a website aimed at teaching people basic computer skills – would a computer programmer be able to properly represent the experiences of the intended audience? It is highly unlikely.
Clearly Define Goals and Tasks
Theoretically it is feasible to simply sit your test audience down in front of your website as say ‘have at it’. It is possible, but such an approach is not going to yield particularly valuable insights.
Website visitors are frequently needs based. They come to your website looking for a solution to a specific problem. Certainly any website will have a measure of visitors who have no idea why they are there or just bored, using the internet as a shield against the daily grind, but these visitors are unlikely to be turned into customers. Instead your potential customers are those who are coming to your site with a problem they hope you can solve.
As such, it is critical that you give your test participants specific tasks to complete. The tasks need to align themselves with both your business goals and the likely goals of potential visitors.
However it is not enough to simply, in the case of an ecommerce site, say ‘buy something’. Your visitors’ needs are more nuanced and your tasks must reflect these.
When dealing with ecommerce websites Alkemi frequently design their tasks around the three types of buyers a website has:
- Those who know exactly what they want
- Those who know approximately what they want
- Those who don’t know what they want but know what need it must fulfil
The Alkemi team designs tasks based around those types of buyers. Certainly, the end goal is still a sale (or a conversion for non-ecommerce sites), but it is in the framing of the task that the required nuance is found.
Done appropriately, these tasks will produce wildly variant behaviour in your subjects. Your visitors will take different approaches to meeting the tasks and by optimising accordingly you can work towards ensuring your site is intuitive for not only all visitors, but all approaches.
The temptation can be to sit in a room with test participants and watch over their shoulder. This is inappropriate for a number of reasons; firstly, it is going to be impractical for many businesses; secondly, such close observation can make visitors self-conscious, which in turn can make your testers behave in ways they would not normally do.
At Alkemi, our approach is to use remote recording tools while our participants carry out their tasks in environments they are likely to use the internet in – such as the home. By providing a level of distance between ourselves and the test participant we limit the impact observation can have on test results.
Analyse Performance & Optimise
This is where the real skill in usability testing comes in. Anyone can watch a person use a website and understand when problems are encountered, but creating effective solutions to those problems takes skill and experience.
It’s not just designing an effective solution that requires a specific skill set, but also identifying what actually constitute problems versus aberrational behaviour. A common trap for many people engaging in usability testing is to put too much emphasis on perceived problems that do not warrant it. Understanding the interplay of competing needs is critical if you want to avoid fixing one problem only to create a larger one for a higher percentage of users. It’s a balancing act and having someone on board who understands that balancing act is essential.
Usability and Alkemi
As one of Australia’s leading (and first) conversion rate enhancement agencies, we take it as our mission to make use of as many effective weapons in the fight for higher conversion rates on our client’s websites. Usability testing is just one of the many interrelated tools we use.
The key benefit of having Alkemi on board with your usability testing is that all recommendations are made from a background of the wider ‘narrative’ of conversion rate enhancement. We don’t make recommendations that simply fix a problem, we make recommendations that work to help fulfil your business goals as well. Agencies that focus on usability only can only take their analysis so far before it falls outside of their expertise, not so with Alkemi.
Alkemi is unique in this focus. Every step of the way, our usability tests are created with your business goals in mind. An intuitive website is one thing, but one that is intuitive and converts highly is even better. That’s the Alkemi difference.
Tests are setup in such a way as to ensure your visitor’s various ways of buying are all represented. Our analysis not only examines actual behaviour but compares that against desired behaviour and motivations.
And when it comes to recommendations we are focused on finding the sweet spot between implementation cost and result. We are an ROI focused agency and finding your ultimate win position is our ultimate goal.