What is Website Usability Testing? What goes into it? How is the best way to approach it? What goals should you set and what can you hope to get out of it?

It wasn’t that long ago that only enterprise companies engaged in website usability testing. And for good reason. Market share and sales worth millions or even billions was at stake. Fast forward to today. Technology has leveled the playing field. You can be a business of any size and still benefit from website usability testing.

You don’t have to be a design professional or UI/UX geek to understand how to engage in website usability testing—or how to benefit from it. It’s very easy now that there are software and websites that’ll help you with the process. Before you try the “there’s an app for that” approach, though, try the—for lack of a better phrase—old fashioned approach.

Do it by observing actual people who interact with your website. Your website was made for humans, after all, right? It’s time to see for yourself how well it’s working for them. Here’s what you need to know.

Crash test dummies?

Leave those for the self-driving cars for now. You need real people. A specific kind of real people.

Stay away from friends, family, and people in your own company. In general, you want to find and engage people who are familiar with the industry in which your company operates—but who’ve never heard or know very little about your company.

These dispassionate testers are important because you’re going to get input from them that a friend, family member, or co-worker probably would feel uncomfortable sharing with you. That sort of participation and input won’t help you at all.

Before you get started

You’ll get a different answer from everyone if you ask them about where to conduct your website usability testing. In your offices? At the participant’s place? A neutral location? Via Skype or other types of screen sharing? You’ll have to exercise some common sense about this. But, there are a few things that’ll help.

First impressions count. If you’re meeting a participant for the first time, put them at ease. It’s not a theatrical experiment, but it helps to remind them that you’re hoping to get the kind of feedback they’d give you if they were using your website at home—or maybe at the office—without you being there to observe.

Set expectations about the type of feedback or observations you’d like them to provide. These clear instructions will put participants further at ease. Let them know up front how long you think the whole process might take.

Remember, too, that if you’ve chosen the appropriate participants, they’re not going to know much about your company. They likely won’t know much about website usability, so, choose your words carefully. Drop any geeky website usability jargon or buzzwords as this may make your participants feel uncomfortable, and can shut down important observations they may be afraid to state for fear of seeming to be “un-technical.”

Testing underway

You’ll be walking the fine line between zero-based assumptions and trying not to insult the intelligence of your participants. Unless it was part of the selection process, make sure they’re comfortable using the operating system and browser you’re using for the testing.

This is an opportunity to learn many things above and beyond usability. Tell them the website’s name.

Let them type in the URL instead of having it running already. Ask them what they think of the name and URL. Guess what? That’s part of usability!

Your objective is to find a balance between facilitating their feedback and guiding them through the things you want to test. Be subtle with your cues if a participant isn’t sure what to do next. Ask them what they think they should do. These observations are crucial to help you improve navigation and the user experience.

The most important thing you want to accomplish with this gentle probing and facilitation is helping the participant understand that it’s your website—not them—that’s being tested.

Choosing a participant’s tasks

We won’t spend much time on this. It’ll be obvious. Why did you create your website? You’ll want to test all of the interactive areas, but don’t skip the passive content. Ask the participant to look over your “About Us” or “Contact Us” pages. They know little or nothing about you. Is the content there enough for them to engage with you?

Don’t forget to ask them to suggest anything they feel might be missing. Determining missing or additional functionality is part of usability testing.

A few words on words

You won’t’ (or shouldn’t) mean to, but how you say things to a participant will impact their response. It’s human nature to respond with what we think people want to hear. You can get around this by providing scenarios instead of instructions.

If you want to see how a specific task on your website works for a participant, tell them what you’d like them to accomplish, rather than how to use the website.

And, finally…

When in doubt, listen. It’s the website you want being tested. Your participation has to be neutral—even when they do or don’t do something you feel strongly about. Any feedback at all should come from only one source, and that’s the participant. Otherwise, it’s you who’ll end up being tested. (It’s one reason why people turn to online website usability testing solutions—and we’ll review some of our favorites in Part 2 of this article, so stay tuned for that!)

Participants have to feel as if they’re simply having a dialog with you as they interact with the website. Keep your facilitation just like a casual conversation. It’s also important to encourage participants to express their honest opinion, and not what they think you want to hear.

After the testing

Not so fast! At the completion of your website usability testing, you’ve got one last favor to ask of a participant. Ask them what they can remember about the structure and functions of the site. Leading questions are inappropriate, so consider the scenario approach again.

Can they tell you about your main static navigation? Was everything there that they needed to do what you asked? Can they easily recall how to get to a specific area? They might not be able to express that verbally, so ask them to show you.

Assignment time

Not for your participants. They’re done.

It’s your turn. You’ll have collected a lot of information, and it’s time to sort it out. It’s time to look for patterns. Then it’s time to prioritize and act.

What was the most critical feedback you got from participants? Fix it fast. Check your ego at the door and tweak it to increase usability. Then be prepared to re-test and test again to be sure you’re always improving. It can be a billion-dollar decision for an enterprise company. What’s it worth to you?