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Usability testing – When is your website “good enough”?

January 6, 2011

In this blog post Seth Godin rants about certain problems he experienced with the Jet Blue website. The post basically describes his reactions as he tries to book four seats online and closely matches what I have observed in hundreds of interviews while testing the usability of my client’s websites and software applications. I sympathize with his frustrations and have frequently made recommendations to clients similar to the ones he makes for improving the experience of Jet Blue’s customers.

You can visualize the flow of a single usability interview by reading the post and imagining me sitting next to him in a conference room (or, alternatively, the two of us connected through an online conferencing service). As Seth advances through his task (purchasing four plane tickets) he verbalizes his reasoning for the way he is navigating through the site and his emotional experience as the website responds. When his feelings, intention or the expected result are unclear I might ask an open-ended clarifying question. By the end of the session I am confident that all of the problems mentioned in the post, along with other more subtle differences between his expectations and the actual performance and design of the site would arise.

Comparing the experiences of a total of 8-12 participants as they strive to complete the same mission critical tasks on the website or application generates a chart of commonly experienced problems. Each problem is then placed in a four-quadrant grid where one axis plots the importance of fixing the problem and the other identifies the anticipated resources required to make the improvement.

Obviously, the tasks that are mission critical, as well as those that can be completed with minimal resources are the “low hanging fruit” and the ones that clients most typically tackle.

Upon completion, another iteration of usability testing typically follows to see how well the solutions work and to ensure that they have not created any new problems. Follow up rounds of testing are important because websites or software applications are analogous to a spider web. Changing, adding or removing one strand from the web has repercussions throughout the entire structure. Simple usability projects might only require a couple of rounds of testing. One of my most complex projects, the total makeover of a large corporate website, required about 8 rounds of testing over the course of 9 months. Each successive round tested refinements resulting from the last round of testing as well as new functionalities that were added throughout the development process.

I have found that the saying “the absence of feedback is feedback” (from a personal growth seminar I used to facilitate) to be very relevant to usability testing. Participants rarely gush about a well-designed website because it is usually perceived as merely a means to an end or a tool. For example, when is the last time you enthusiastically exclaimed “this is a great stapler” while creating a packet of papers? Like a stapler, a website or application that fulfills the user’s needs in an efficient and simple manner is often unremarkable. For this reason, I consider it high praise when users complete their tasks efficiently with little comment, and, when they conclude their session by stating something along the lines of “it worked just as I expected” .

How do you know when your website or application is ready for prime time? Unfortunately, in some cases it is when the business initiative declares that the time for development is up or all of the funds are gone. In a more ideal scene a website or application is ready for release when almost all test participants successfully complete the mission critical tasks with minimal problems.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 12, 2011 8:04 am

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