The function of a usability evaluation is to determine how well visitors to your site are able to discover and explore content, use your site to meet their intentions and expectations, and how satisfied they are with the process. There are a number of ways to determine your usability, whether rating your existing site or planning a new one, but understanding the concept is a crucial first step.
Usability is a fairly new concept in relation to the interaction between computers and their users—humans and the machines and software some of our brightest minds have developed. Design, philosophy, cognitive psychology, and ergonomics all play a role in understanding usability, but you don’t need to be an expert in any of these fields.
Simply put, usability is all about how effectively your site or software is designed, and how happy your users are. It’s not quite as clear-cut as all that of course, as usability is the combination of factors, including ease of learning, intuitive design, efficiency of use, satisfaction, memorability, and the rate and severity of errors.
Conducting usability evaluations is a crucial step in taking your site to the next level when it comes to reaching your target market and getting ahead of your competition. We’ve all experienced at least one site where the layout made no sense to you, you weren’t able to find anything you were looking for (even if you knew the content was available on that site), and you kept getting errors or unnecessary redirects. And chances are, every time you came across a site like that, you decided to move on to the next option on your search engine’s results page.
Usability evaluations allow you to minimize and very nearly eliminate the possibility of that happening when visitors view your site by showing you where your design, categorization, and layout is lacking. It gives you a better understanding of how your target market thinks, and therefore shows you how best to develop and optimize your site.
The core principle behind a well-optimized site is a user-centered design, after all, so you should start doing usability evaluation tests as early and as often as possible.
Conducting usability tests involves finding participants who are representative of your target market and asking them to use your site with a few set tasks in mind. Invigilators are then able to observe, question, and take notes, with the intention of identifying any issues users experience. The data gathered is then used to rate the site for usability and customer satisfaction.
Usability tests should follow three major focus points: effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction. Effectiveness is decided by how well your participants are able to complete the prescribed tasks, while efficiency considers the amount of time they take. Both are key factors in building user satisfaction levels, which can be determined with the use of subjective questions best placed at the end of each task or the test as a whole.
This process allows the design team to discover any flaws in the development and layout that could and should be rectified. The earlier you’re able to start collecting and analyzing usability test results, the less time you’ll have to spend fixing any errors in the long run.
Focus group sessions are moderated discussions between five to ten participants, with the intention of getting them to talk about how they perceive and react to your site and the concepts you’ve incorporated in its design.
This is the main difference between a usability test and a focus group. During the former (explained above), you get to observe the process of your participants exploring and experiencing your site within a controlled environment and analyze submitted data. With a focus group, on the other hand, the participants are telling you rather than showing you what their experience was, often in relation to their expectations, but you won’t have the opportunity to witness or verify these experiences in the making.
Despite this, conducting focus group discussions are integral to the usability evaluation process. It’s almost always a good idea to schedule a focus group with participants who have recently completed a usability test.
You should have a script of open-ended questions prepared beforehand for you (or a facilitator of your choosing, perhaps a usability expert you’ve hired) to run through. These should be arranged in a way that encourages a natural discussion rather than an interview, and the session should always be properly recorded for analysis.
Conducting a card sorting session entails finding representatives of your target market and giving them the opportunity to show you how they would categorize your content. It’s a great follow-up for usability tests and focus groups, as it expands on the question of how effectively and efficiently your users will be able to navigate your site.
Participants are presented with a list of topics and asked to group them under category titles. In a closed card sort, the categories provided are fixed, but in an open card sort participants are allowed and encouraged to rename and add to your pre-defined labels, and even add sub-groups, as they feel necessary. The best practice is to host a card sorting session split into two parts—starting with an open card sort and then ending with a closed sort.
The results, once analyzed, will help you to restructure your site’s information architecture to ensure that content is categorized and presented in a way that users are able to navigate intuitively.
First Click Testing can and should be incorporated into your initial usability test, but after implementing changes based on the results of your card sorting sessions you should always consider hosting a stand-alone first click test to follow up.
As with all the components of the usability evaluation process, first click testing can be done on a live site or a work in progress (whether still building the site or redesigning it), and should incorporate participants who are representative of your target market. In addition to testing intuitive navigation, this type of test will also give you an indication of your linking structure’s effectiveness.
First click testing should focus on giving participants a question and asking them to find the answer on your site. You (and any invigilators) should know the correct, quickest navigation path for solving each problem, so you can compare it to the routes taken by your participants. Special attention should also be given to how long it takes a participant to click each link—the quicker the better, as taking a long time to find somewhere they feel should take them to the answer is an indication that the layout and categorization of your site is less than optimal.
Finally, participants should be given the opportunity to explain how easy or how difficult they found each task, and how confident they felt when following links.
Before rushing out to recruit from the general public, you should create a list of requirements participants should meet to ensure that they fall into your target market. This is referred to as the screening list, and should cover the following:
Age - what is the age group (or groups) that your product/service is aimed toward? If there are multiple age groups covered, consider how many representatives of each you need.
Gender - does your product or service cater toward only one gender, or both? If both, you should consider how many participants you need and then try to balance the number of representatives fairly.
Ethnicity - if your site is aimed toward a specific ethnicity or culture, or more than one, identifying that group is important. Should your product or service be applicable across the board, consider finding an equal number of representatives for each ethnic and/or cultural group.
Education - you may be providing a service or product geared toward high school students, college students, and/or people working within a specific field, in which case finding the right representatives requires screening education level and work history.
Language - it’s no use finding representatives with English as a first language if your site is going to be in French or Spanish.
Miscellaneous - depending on your product or service, gathering some data on health, personal history, living environments, family standing, and/or marital status can help narrow down your search for participants.
But how to use this criteria list? Finding participants for face to face sessions can be rather tricky, especially as you ought to try recruiting existing clients as much as possible. This process is made somewhat easier if you have a walk-in sales point, such as a shop, or you have an email address book of clients, as either offer you an easy opportunity to invite clients to participate. You’ll also be able to put a post-up on your site, but monitoring who is available for a sit-down session at a specified time can be difficult. You’ll also want to consider offering a gift voucher or similar reward as an incentive for clients to actively get involved.
With the exception of focus group discussions, any of the usability evaluation methods can easily be done online, making finding participants a lot easier. Most usability evaluation tools and software have integrated recruitment forums and provide you with a link that you can share via email, social media, and/or on your site. Focus groups can be done via a webinar—a group Skype call, for example—but monitoring these can be difficult.
Usability evaluations are certainly integral to building and maintaining a site that is user-friendly, accessible, and likely to have return visitors as well as referrals. Testing early and often is sure to help you make sure your site stays on top of the game, and conducting subsequent tests (where able) to follow up on changes made as a result of initial tests is always a good idea.