Theoretically, an ideal website should be immediately clear to new visitors, easy to use (even after long breaks from the site) and error-free. All these while delivering a pleasant experience for all users.
While this might seem obvious, in practice, it’s quite challenging for many organisations to achieve. Unfortunately, very few web interfaces are perfect as many websites are typically poorly laid-out, therefore making user navigation counter-intuitive.
For instance, their web components comprise poorly labelled buttons, or unclear prompts, which frustrate new or returning users. One way to avert such problems is usability testing.
What is usability testing?
To accurately define usability testing, we need to first define usability. Usability can be generally defined as the degree to which a device or software assists a person to accomplish a specific task. This is in contrast to becoming an additional impediment to the task’s accomplishment.
That being said, usability testing is a set of non-functional testing techniques employed to measure how easily a software system or hardware device can be utilised by end-users.
What is website usability?
Website usability testing, also sometimes referred to as User Experience (UX) testing or user testing, involves using testing techniques to measure how easy, intuitive, and user-friendly a software application is.
Website usability test revolves around exposing usability defects by determining users’ ease of using an application, the flexibility of the controls, and the capacity of the application to meet its objectives.
The human-computer interaction characteristics of software are measured, and weaknesses are identified for correction.
As such, usability refers particularly to how well people engage with a website.
Jakob Nielsen, probably the most famous usability expert, believes that usability constitutes five key components: learnability, efficiency, memorability, minimisation of errors, and satisfaction. These can be broken down as:
- Learnability: How easy is it for website users to accomplish basic tasks the first time on the site.
- Satisfaction: How pleasant and easy is it to use the website?
- Efficiency: Once visitors have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
- Memorability: How easily can return users re-establish proficiency?
- Error rates: How many, severe and permanent are user errors?
Why is website usability testing needed?
Usability tests are typically conducted for multiple reasons, namely:
- To determine the time it takes to complete a task compared against established benchmarks.
- To ascertain user satisfaction by understanding user pain points to come up with applicable design solutions to improve user performance.
- To evaluate if users can navigate your website.
- To identify potential problems with website functionality.
- To establish if a website is accomplishing an organisation’s goals.
Overall, the primary goal of usability testing is to ensure that people can utilise your website.
Website usability testing methods
There are numerous methods and techniques for usability testing, namely:
Comparative Usability Testing
In comparative usability testing, end users are essentially required to choose the best of two or more options. It’s principally performed to check the effectiveness of a website against that of its competitors to identify any shortcomings, then address them.
It involves observing metrics like error rates, task completion, and time spent on each specific task.
Explorative Usability Testing
Unlike comparative tests, explorative usability tests are more open-ended as participants are encouraged to give their opinions and explain how they feel about a specific design or user flow.
It is usually performed during the initial stages of website development to judge how users might react to the design. This is to create a fully informed process with users’ exact needs in mind.
This testing approach is designed to assess how a website interface supports first-time users while they learn how to complete a task.
The designers and developers basically imagine the possible steps that would be performed by a user to complete a particular task. They then evaluate the website system’s responses to those tasks.
Here, a small group of people (participants) sit around a table and interactively react to ideas and designs that are shown to them.
In this testing approach, testers examine a website to judge how well it conforms to standard usability principles. Evaluators systematically compare a website against a set-list of defined criteria to determine how closely its design follows recognised usability principles.
Think Aloud Testing
The thinking aloud approach entails observing test users’ interactions with the website as they navigate through the website, and vocalise their thoughts.
In practice, users complete a particular task, vocalising their thoughts as they navigate while explaining why they performed each action and what they are looking for. As such, anything that seems confusing or frustrating is marked upon and recorded for action.
Remote Usability Testing
In this testing approach, the testers and users could be in different countries and time zones. As such, remote testing is, at times, performed using video conferencing software, while other times, the website user works separately from the evaluator.
Currently, remote testing software allows remote usability testing to be performed even by observers who are not usability experts. Usually, this software automatically records the click locations and streams of the users.
As well as any critical incidents that happened while they were exploring the website, along with any actionable feedback the user submits.
The guerilla testing approach of a usability test is probably the cheapest and simplest of the lot. In practice, it involves gathering feedback from random people.
Sometimes, this method involves paper prototyping as an alternative to creating a functional prototype website. Overall, guerilla testing is a time-efficient technique since you do not have to recruit qualified or vetted participants, then wait for their responses.
Read more in our article on “Guerrilla testing”
Phone Interview Testing
As a usability testing approach, phone interviews involve a researcher asking questions to testing participants. It could also be done by instructing them on how to perform a specific task over the phone. In turn, the participants give feedback regarding the website in question.
Overall, this technique is helpful when reaching out to participants and gathering data from wider geographic areas. This is because it allows you to obtain a broader perspective of the website’s potential issues.
Steps to conduct website usability testing
1. Clearly determine metrics and create task analysis
It is imperative to figure out the precise metrics you’ll consider during your testing. Since usability testing can uncover a host of issues, if it’s not being targeted around specific metrics, it won’t be an effective use of your time or money.
As such, ensure to clearly state what you seek to achieve with the usability testing and the exact information you hope to gather. For instance, if you intend to know if website users can order a product successfully, then you should test the entire process from the front page to completing the order.
Overall, usability metrics play a crucial role as statistics to measure a user’s performance on a given set of tasks. For example:
- Success Rate: This judges whether the user was able to complete the task.
- Error Rate: This metric looks at the errors tripped up by users most. They can be divided into either: critical and noncritical. In practice, critical errors prevent a user from completing a task. While noncritical errors lower the efficiency with which they complete tasks.
- Time to Completion: This measures the amount of time a user takes to complete a task.
- Subjective Measures: This metric numerically ranks a user’s self-determined satisfaction, ease-of-use, information availability, etc.
2. Identify the best applicable test method
Usability testing takes multiple forms that come in a range of difficulty and investment requirements. That being said, it is important to determine the best type of test for your website depending on the metrics and tasks you have curated in step one.
After you set the test’s goal, decide which usability testing method is the most suitable. Also, consider the resources you have to do a website usability test.
3. Create task scenarios and set your success rate
Ensure to create different task scenarios that participants should accomplish. For example, a series of tasks related to the aforementioned product ordering example we’ve used in step two.
4. Find suitable participants
From the outset, it is important to carefully determine the number of users you need to conduct a satisfactory usability test. Typically, the recommended industry standard is a minimum of five users.
As you source users, ensure that they are fair representations and approximations to real users. In practice, not validating website design changes with a unique user base can have some drastic implications to your site’s usability.
5. Decide when, where, and who
Essentially, this step involves choosing between two key decisions:
- Remote or in-person testing?
- Moderated or unmoderated testing?
Website usability testing checklist
As you embark on your usability testing initiative, ensure that you check this checklist to increase your chances of success:
- Written website goals.
- Written tasks users take to accomplish goals.
- Written scenarios and situations in which users would engage in these tasks.
- A list of the usability metrics you will capture during the test.
- A list of selected test methods.
- What point(s) during your project will your tests take place?
- Number of testers you will need if a moderator is involved.
- If you are conducting an online test or a paper test?
Usability testing is an absolutely necessary activity for any business with an online presence. As we have established, the three key metrics that are important for usability testing are satisfaction, efficiency, and effectiveness.
Fundamentally, these metrics will determine the best type of usability test to perform for your website.
That being said, usability testing should be more than checking a list of product requirements, but an exercise to support your website design decisions.
Overall, by listening to users and understanding how they interact with your website, you can avoid spending unnecessary time and resources. And, in turn, better serve your users. Remember, usability testing should principally determine whether a website is:
The article is a part of our comprehensive series on “Usability testing”.