It’s Not Your Website. It’s You.
Your website is simply code that a human at your organization put together. The content and design are also things someone at your organization orchestrated. So the website’s usability failures are human failures. And, as the manager or vice president of making the website go live, it’s essentially your failure. Why do so many websites (including those for big companies with substantial budgets) have such a terrible user experiences? Because the humans who managed the website redesign omitted three critical steps from the process:
1. Talk to users prior to designing or redesigning the site.
It’s pretty rare that website redesigns stem from the desire to make the site “prettier,” although improving the websites aesthetics may be part of the redesign wish list. Instead, resources are devoted to redesign a website to address far more critical issues (i.e., customers are calling in to complain they can’t find what they’re looking for). It makes sense, then, to investigate how users currently use the site and what can be changed or added to make their experience better. What better way to know how users are utilizing the site than by asking them quite literally: what do you use on the website the most? Use this opportunity to understand the behaviors of your user: how do they go about performing tasks, what’s important to them, and how do they make decisions? While questionnaires may be tempting, we recommend talking with a small sample of real users—being able to ask follow up questions and ask for clarification trump the quantitative nature of a questionnaire. Supplement that information with site analytics and you have even more data to base your decisions on.
2. Conduct usability studies prior to launch.
Depending on your development process, you can do usability studies in the wireframing stage or with a clickable prototype. The most important thing is to test the redesigned site with people who represent your user base (NOT the people in your office). Decide on what tasks a user must be able to accomplish on the site. If you’re testing a marketing site, common tasks will include downloading a white paper, signing up for your newsletter, and registering for a webinar. If you’re testing a web app, tasks will vary widely depending on the type of product or service. For an education technology web app for teachers, tasks could include creating a new class assignment, creating a new class roster, or grading an assignment. If your product has fundamentally different types users, (for example, an ed tech web app might have teachers and students as users) you’ll need to develop unique tasks for each type of user.
3. Conduct usability studies after (or just prior to) launch and periodically thereafter until the end of time.
Things are always different post-launch and, realistically, there were probably things you couldn’t test prior to launch (the plug-in wasn’t working or the database hadn’t been created yet). Now is the opportunity to test and optimize the website—before the flood of customer service calls. And, yes, you do need to test the site with representative users periodically for the life of the website. How often? If your website is critical to the day-to-day operations of your company (i.e., it’s an e-commerce site or web app) you should be testing with three to five users once a month. If your website is a marketing site with limited functionality, you can get away with conducting usability tests less often. You can also continue to interview users (consider adding a few interview questions after the usability study) as well as monitor site analytics.
Failure to do user research or usability testing is a human/organization problem—not a website problem. Just like your company, your website is dynamic and will change over time. By talking to users before the site redesign and testing with users during and after the redesign, you ensure a lasting investment—not only in a site that doesn’t need to be redesigned as often but also in increased sales and reduced customer service calls.