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What Is Usability Testing?: Building a User-First Website To Increase Engagement

Your website is your best employee. It works 24/7 to direct users to the information they’re looking for about your organization. It has a job to do just like everybody else—spreading your message and brand, hosting information and resources, and enabling people to do things (like sign up, apply, donate, etc.) that help them to achieve their real-life goals.

Usability testing is a measure of how easily and efficiently someone can use your website to achieve a goal or complete tasks. Also important is the user experience (UX) of your website.

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No matter what the functionality of your website, real users are going to be interacting with it. And today, good usability isn’t optional. If your user interface doesn’t have the ease of use it should, it may be time for a usability test. But how do you know if it’s time? Usability problems don’t always just jump out, mainly due to what we call the Curse of Knowledge. Because you know so much about your organization and how it works, you don’t have the perspective of someone who doesn’t. So, you may not even recognize your own usability issues. Your users aren’t always going to tell you when something isn’t working optimally. That’s why it’s important to get feedback from real users in your target audience through user research.

Ultimately, your mission is to find out what’s working well on your website and what’s working poorly. Then, you want to find out why. Is it the design process? The content development process? Bugs? Navigation issues? In the testing process, you’re also getting to know your users. You’re learning their motivations and behaviors—and those could be different than you thought!

After conducting a usability evaluation, you should have opportunities to improve your website and user experience and a list of priorities.

Usability Studies

You can do an expert website review or test your website yourself using heuristics and best practices for usability—but even websites that follow best practices can still have usability issues. So much is dependent on your unique offerings, goals, and user behavior.

In a usability study, you ask a set of participants to attempt a set of tasks on your website. You’ll observe where they have trouble, and make note of the things they like and dislike. One round of user testing won’t expose all of the issues on your website. You should develop a test plan and designate time for future test sessions.

Types of Usability Testing

There are two research methods for usability testing:

  1. Summative: Used to identify whether users have an easy or difficult time finding or completing a task or tasks, how long it takes them, etc. This methodology is good for establishing benchmarks and having key metrics with which to measure improvements. This type will tell you the “what” but not really the “why.”

  2. Formative: Used to pull deeper insights into what and why something does or doesn’t work. This methodology will help inform direction and specific fixes to make when considering a new design.

Test Formats

  1. In-person vs. remote usability testing: You can either sit side-by-side in a real place or conduct your test virtually where the user shares their screen.

  2. Moderated vs. unmoderated: There are some services you can use for unmoderated testing, where participants simply get instructions and perform the tasks. Alternatively, you could have a moderator from your organization present or on the call to conduct the study. In a moderated test, you have the opportunity to clarify instructions and ask follow-up questions.

What Should You Test?

As hard as it might be to narrow down what you want to test first on your website, always remember that this should be the first of many routine tests. You’ll have the time—so prioritize and start somewhere. A great question to ask yourself is what exactly your website’s job is for your organization. If your website were an employee, what would it be doing? What are its top responsibilities? What do you track in your analytics?

You may come up with quite a few things to test, which is great! To avoid burning out your participants, keep your testing sessions to under one hour with five to seven tasks to complete.

Who Should You Test?

You don’t need hundreds of participants in each test session. Five participants is the suggested “magic number” for finding the biggest and most crucial issues during qualitative studies. You may want more participants when you’re testing a more complex process or system, but for your first study, five will give you great data and insight.

You’ll want to recruit people who are representative of your website audiences. That means they could be connected with your organization (your members, recurring donors, students, etc.) or not connected (e.g. from a pool of potential members.) You’ll also want participants from different backgrounds and experience levels, especially including people who haven’t used your website before and those with different accessibility requirements.

Using Your Test Results

After your first round of testing, it’s time to analyze. Find patterns from your results. What issues repeated themselves? Were there tasks that had more pain points than others? Prioritize your issues by ranking them by how severely they prevent your users from completing tasks.

Some issues are easy fixes, while others might require major design changes. Others may be indicative of even bigger issues that occur site-wide. So you might use your results to:

  • Change content on the site
  • Fix bugs (e.g. development and interaction bugs)
  • Redesign or recategorize information
    Few things can make a case for a redesign more than regular UX research, so test early and often.

    Use insights, quotes, and clips from the testing sessions to make your case to your board, colleagues, and other stakeholders about why something is a problem and needs resources and attention. Few things can make a case for a redesign more than regular UX research, so test early and often. Then, after you make changes in response to your testing, test those webpages again to make sure there are no issues.

    Mighty Citizen Can Help

    Need some pointers on usability testing, or a third-party partner to help you with audience research? Shoot us a message and let us know how we can work with you.

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