Website Usability Testing: “We Are Not Our Users”

Christopher Butler, interactive design expertIn a recent interview, Chris Butler talks about why usability testing is important to a website’s success—how it supports design decision-making, and how testing leads to an improved user experience. You can hear Chris speak on the topic live in his upcoming design tutorial, How Simple Usability Testing Benefits Your Web Design, on Thursday, December 13 at 2 p.m ET.

Q: Why is usability testing so important to making a site successful?

A: The short answer: because our users have free will, and we are not our users.

There’s a great quote from David Kelley, founder of IDEO, that I find myself repeating. In a talk at Stanford, he said, “You don’t find anything out until you start showing it to people.” I’ve stolen that and completely integrated it into my advice to clients. No matter how much collective intelligence and creativity a team has, it will never create the perfect thing. Without feedback from the people that thing is being made for, it won’t even end up being the right. He went on to say, “Humans are really interesting. If you show them your idea in the prototype form, very few people will tell you all the things they think are right with it. But everybody will tell you all the things that are wrong with it. So you just write down, you copiously take notes about all those things and you fix them. And the next time you show up you have all those things fixed. It doesn’t take very many times before you have a product that’s delighting the people that you’re making it for. And so, we call this enlightened trial and error.” I think that’s about the best apology for ongoing usability testing I could imagine.

Q: How can the data you receive really inform the design decisions you make?

A: In just about every way you could imagine. Typically, we assume things are clear when they’re really not. That’s the first sort of thing that usability testing demonstrates. For example: all our volunteers are missing that call to action. Why? What are they doing instead? Now that we’ve seen what they’re doing for ourselves, how can we adjust the page to make that call to action clear? Another type of testing that I’ll review, called Ten-Second Testing, specifically addresses how design decisions can assist users in getting the right first impression of a web page. I’ve never seen a ten-second test not lead to adjustments in a page’s design, whether it be typography, imagery, or something else.

Q: Can you provide an example of how usability testing for a project really contributed to a course direction, or shift in thinking, that ended up improving the overall experience a user would have with the site?

A: One that immediately comes to mind is a site we’re building for an agency partner right now. In early discussions, the idea of publishing pricing information on their site came up, and it quickly became clear that it was one that made the principals of this agency uncomfortable. We batted that around a bit, I and my colleagues arguing that publishing pricing was a good idea, while the client remained unconvinced, until we resolved to see what direction some early usability reviews of their current site might provide. As it turned out, every volunteer mentioned a desire to see pricing information without specific prompting. In fact, one question asked of volunteers at the end of testing sessions was what step they might take next, to which almost all of them answered that they would seek out pricing information as a means of either disqualifying the agency as an option for them (or themselves as a viable client to the agency). With that information, the agency moved forward with publishing their pricing.