Two Easy, In-Person Usability Tests for Website Designers

Since the dawn of modern, standards-based web design, a number of competing firms have been trying to create the Internet's top usability validator. These tools focus on behind-the-scenes coding and tags, including things like alternate text for images and reader-friendly text that works well with today's most popular screen reading applications. The problem, of course, is that these online validators can't actually use the website. They're simply analyzing the site's code, looking for certain tags and pronouncing the site widely accessible and usable for a broad audience. In practical applications, a usability or accessibility "validator" is more theoretical than practical. People, not robots, are going to be using the site, and they're going to see the results of the code rather than the code itself.

For this reason, the best usability test is one that actually involves using the site as produced by its XHTML underpinnings. Real people need to take a stab at navigating, comment, reading, and recommending, and they need to provide feedback about whether those things are easy, somewhat difficult, or virtually impossible. Only the feedback of real people will produce a site that is inherently intuitive across a broad spectrum of the Internet's traditional user base.

To that end, there are two really great tests that can help showcase a site's strengths and weaknesses in terms of everyday usability and accessibility. The first, known as the "quick-and-dirty" test, focuses on first impressions and a few clicks. The second test, which is even quicker, is known as the "five-second usability test." It works exactly how it sounds: Users have five seconds to develop a first impression based on the design they're presented with. Here's how each test works in practice.

The Quick-and-Dirty Usability Test: Guidelines and Step-by-Step Instructions

The quick-and-dirty test is one of the most effective ways to judge just how usable a website is, or where the best opportunities are for optimization and simplification. Because of the nature of this test, there are a few considerations and requirements that website designers should adhere to before and during the process.

1. Only select "typical" Internet users. Advanced users will be able to figure virtually any design out, and they’re inclined to do so. The typical user, however, represents more of the population and is generally not curious, patient, or skilled enough to drill down through a complicated design. Advanced users will skew the results in favor of the design, while more typical Internet users will present a better source of honest feedback about real usability.

2. Be prepared to ask friends and family members if there's no office co-worker who meets the requirement that the test be conducted by a novice Internet user. Friends and family members more resemble the traditional user, and their relationship with the designer means that they'll be willing to share more honest and verbose feedback than strangers or coworkers might be willing to offer.

3. Accept that change will likely be require. There is a well-known divide between designers and users, and a usability test is designed to bridge that divide effectively. Often, that means making small changes and concessions that accommodate the average user. Those changes may not be the designer's preferred modifications, but they're the right ones and they're absolutely necessary.

Step-By-Step: A Look at How to Perform the Quick-and-Dirty Usability Test

Step 1: Find an Available Usability Tester

When the design is potentially ready to publish, its time to find someone who can give it a run-through and determine whether or not it's ready to be used by everyday Internet users. In order to properly conduct the test, the person selected for the test should be able to show up in person, testing the website right in front of its designer. This allows for valuable real-time feedback.

Step 2: Begin Questioning the Tester About the Site's Design, Usability, and Appearance

Now that the tester has been presented with the website either on the screen or in printed form, it's time to start judging exactly how they're responding to what they see. Ask them specific questions that can generate a clear answer and a course of action: Is the navigation easy to use? Do you know what the focus of the website is? What do you think of the colors? Can you tell where the links are? What about the sidebar? Is this useful?

It's important to ask questions about each element of the design, rather than ask about the design as a whole. After all, many great designs only have a few things that need to be adjusted in order to allow for long-term success. Maybe the navigation is fine, but the footer needs a little work. Maybe the sidebar is great, but the link color should be adjusted so that it's a bit more obvious. By narrowing down the questions and spotlighting certain elements, this quick question-and-answer session will reveal successes and specific areas that need fixing. Each individual test should take about 10 or 15 minutes.

Step 3: Do it Again!

One person's feedback is good, but many people offering feedback on the same design is even better. Be prepared to find more volunteers to test the design and any modifications made as a result of their feedback.

Step 4: Start Making Changes

Based on the collective feedback from all testers, go ahead and modify the design so that it is more usable and intuitive than it was during an earlier period of testing. When the changes have been made, it's time to find both the earlier testers and some new ones to check out the new site. If they approve, the process is done and the site is ready for launch. Be prepared, however, to make even more changes and unleash yet another version of the site until perfection has been achieved.

The Five-Second Impression Test

Though named the quick-and-dirty test, the process above is actually the lengthier of the two tests available to website designers who are looking to make a splash with their newest effort. The five-second impression test is designed to be exponentially faster, judging an entirely different aspect of the design that is just as important.

Instead of an in-depth usability testing session, this test focuses on the instant impression that the website makes each time it loads. The user is given just 5 seconds to look at the site and check out the design. What they remember from this brief window of time will set the terms for the rest of the test and its recommended course of action. Here's how it works.

Step 1: Find Volunteers

As with the quick-and-dirty test, website designers need to find several volunteers who are generally representative of the broader population of Internet users. Be sure to explain that their services are requested for a brief, five-second test of a website's lasting impression when recruiting them to this test. This ensures that they're prepared to offer the most useful feedback possible.

Step 2: Show the Design and Set the Clock

When the volunteer is ready, go ahead and show them either a printed version of the website deign or a printed version of that design. Be sure to keep a silent countdown going on in the background, and turn off the screen immediately after five seconds has passed.

Step 3: Jog the Tester's Memory

So, with just five seconds to check out a design and remember what was on the screen, how much did the tester remember? Instead of asking about the site's usability and individual elements of the site's design, questions for this test should focus on broad themes about the site's appearance and purpose. Does the tester have any idea what the site is for? If it sells a product, does the tester know what that product is after five seconds? Do they remember colors, names, images, or other themes? Answers to these questions will spotlight exactly how effective the design emphasizes the company's overall message.

Step 4: Assess the Results of the Test

If the group of testers generally was able to discern the company's name, its flagship product or service, and remember key details about the business just by looking at the site for five seconds, the design is probably a hit. If not, it's time to reconsider how the page could be reconfigured so that it offers a clearer message, more descriptive photos or text, and a better chance at quickly guiding customers through conversion and checkout.

Step 5: Do it Again

If a five-second window of time wasn't enough for the company to make an impression, design changes are needed. When they're made, conduct the test again. Keep doing this until the site is as effective as it needs to be.

Feedback from Real People is Invaluable During Design and Implementation

Don't trust online validators to indicate just how accessible or usable a site is. Instead, trust feedback from the actual people who will see, use and interact with the design once it's implemented. By taking this feedback to heart and revising the design as needed, it's likely to pay off in a major way as soon as the final version is put into place.

Written 2013-10-22 (Updated 2016-10-10)
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Written by David Walsh

David Walsh is the editor in chief here at Web Hosting Search. Having been in the industry for many years now he knows pretty much everything about everything. At least that's what he keeps telling everyone at the office. So, don't hesitate to drop him a line  if you've got a question - david(a)

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