Why You Need to Test Your Web Site with Real Users | WebReference

Why You Need to Test Your Web Site with Real Users


by Lois Wakeman (lois.wakeman@siteusability.com)

Why You Need to Test Your Web Site with Real Users

I recently attended the Nielson Norman Group User Experience World Tour (see my review if you want to know more). I learned much about making Web sites more usable, but the most common theme was the importance of usability testing. If you think usability isn't important, a recent test of shopping sites showed that almost half the tasks set to the test shoppers weren't completed successfully – which equates to a lot of frustrated consumers and lost sales when scaled up to the global level!

Assessing the usability of your site

To assess how usable your Web site is, you can choose a variety of techniques. I hope to convince you that user testing is one of the most important. Below are some of ways you can assess your sites usability.

How user testing works

A small number of users (five are usually enough – see Jakob Neilsen's Alertbox) are asked, one by one, to perform set tasks using the site. Their behavior is observed (not directed!) by a knowledgeable person sitting in the same room, who takes notes on what they do and say. Sometimes, a video link or two-way mirror allows other staff to watch without disturbing the test.

The users are reasonably representative of the target audience for the site. If there are different target audiences, each must be tested separately. Testing can take place at almost any stage of development – in general, the earlier the better. Simple tests of early prototypes allow problems to be fixed, and then the next iteration of the site can be tested. This is a much more efficient use of resources than completing the site and doing one big test at the end.

Summary: Why you need to test with real users

Consultants, marketing and Web development people have their own biased views of what users want or need. But only users can really tell you whether your site meets their requirements.

However experienced the usability consultant who advised you on your site, there will always be some aspects that real users will find problematic. Caroline Jarrett, who's conducted many tests, says "In a test, at least one user will surprise you by using the site in an unanticipated way." Testing also has a useful side- effect: it can act as a neutral agent to convince your boss, your designers, the marketing team, and the developers of the importance of good usability. While anyone can legitimately question the opinion of the professionals, it takes real nerve to suggest that the intended users of the site don't know what they need!


This article originally appeared in the Jan. 11, 2000 edition of the WebReference Update Newsletter.

Comments are welcome

Revised: Jan. 17, 2001

URL: http://www.webreference.com/home/web/authoring/design/usability/testing/