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Site Usability Testing

» Why Your Clients (Should) Want It

Usability is an amorphous concept in the world of web design, and convincing potential clients that usability is an element of the development budget can present more than a couple of problems.

Let’s start with usability. Usability includes technical, ergonomic and aesthetic considerations. Naturally, technical considerations are easy to identify — bugs, glitches, coding errors and other misfires that cause your computer to lock up tighter than a drum are easily identified in testing and, usually, easy to fix. But the fact remains that the development of a web site involves coding and, as all professional designers know, you aren’t going to get it perfect the first time out. No matter how good you are.

Ergonomic (human/machine interaction) considerations include everything from the selected type font to the size and labeling of buttons. The well-designed site must be user-friendly, user-intuitive and user-empathetic! User-friendliness makes the visitor feel comfortable while on site. Navigation is clear and simple, explanatory text is clearly labeled and options are easily exercised.

A site that’s user-intuitive anticipates the interaction between visitor and site design. For example, we’ve all become familiar with hyperlinked text. When we see text in blue against a field of black text, most of us assume we’re looking at a link. The good designer will anticipate this and avoid using blue text as the highlight color, anticipating that most visitors will assume the highlighted text is a link, not just a highlight.

Finally, a good site is one that’s user-empathetic. A good site designer will put him/herself in the place of users to better understand their needs and wants. A site designed for a senior housing project might require more extensive navigation directions, a 16pt font and extra large buttons because many of the visitors to the site will be senior citizens who, perhaps, aren’t as familiar with web use as a younger demographic.

Part of your job as a designer is to make sure that the site has everything it needs to serve its intended purpose. A links page, a secure checkout and payment system, easy-to-read text, a site map, large buttons, clearly labeled — these are all ergonomic considerations. In short, how does the user interact with the design?

Finally, aesthetics is the third element of a well-designed site, and of course, aesthetics is highly subjective. Is the color scheme harmonious? Does the motif fit the purpose of the site? Is the site welcoming, encouraging the visitor to stick around?

So, web site usability includes a technical, ergonomic and aesthetic dimension. And the only means the designer has to determine the appropriateness and effectiveness of a design is through usability testing. This is where some clients usually start to ask questions.

Many clients figure they’re already paying good money to a highly proficient, experienced design firm to avoid usability issues. “Why should I pay extra for something you’re supposed to do as part of the project anyway — produce a fully-functional, bug free web site that has eye appeal?” You can’t argue, it’s a good question.

And when faced with that question, you have only one response: variables.

You’ve designed and launched dozens of sites, you’re current on the latest technology and you’ve even read the entire patent application for Google’s latest search engine, SE 125 (see May articles). You are the consummate professional. That’s why you want to undertake usability testing — not because you lack confidence in your design, but because you want to make sure the site functions under diverse conditions — the variables factor.

It’s safe to assume, for example, that visitors will arrive at a site in various ways. Some will come through the big portals like Yahoo! or AOL. Others will access the site using Outlook or Explorer. Some visitors will connect using DSL, others will still be using dial-up.

Then, there are differences between various computer brands, with some manufacturers using proprietary software that may conflict with a site graphic or photo. Does the site work as it should cross-platform? Without usability testing on both Macs and PCs, you (and the client) just won’t know.

And what about the variability of users? Some will be skilled surfers, while others may have never heard of the I-net. Some will think the red, white and blue motif is eye-catching, others will think it’s a distraction. There’s no accounting for taste. It’s personal, unpredictable, inconsistent and, most of all, variable.

Now, most of your clients — at least those who’ve never been web site owners before — will think site design is first and foremost a technical exercise conducted by geeks. It’s important to explain, here, that site design also includes the ergonomic and aesthetic dimensions and, that, just as a TV pilot will be viewed by numerous focus groups, a new site should be tested, not only for debugging, but also for the testers’ interactions with the site and their opinions on design elements.

As such, usability testing shouldn’t be viewed as an additional expense, it should be seen by the client as a necessary expense to ensure the proper functioning of the site and to ensure the user response the client is expecting.

To launch a site without usability testing is doing a disservice to the client. It’s in the client’s best interests to have usability tests performed by you rather than having visitors ‘test’ the site after launch. If the site is buggy, or if the colors bleed on some monitors, this is the kind of thing you want to find out before visitors start dropping by the new site. If a user visits a new site, which subsequently locks up her computer, do you think she’s ever coming back? Not bloody likely.

As a professional designer, encourage all of your clients to accept usability testing as part of the design and development process, and most certainly, not a step that should be skipped for cost cutting. If the client is made aware of the wide array of variables that you, the designer, must consider during the construction phase of a site, then opting for usability testing becomes the best and only prudent choice.

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