5 Testing Methods to Improve Your Site’s User Experience

Learn how to create and use simple tests of usability & user experience (UX) to ensure your users understand your product and convert into customers.

User Experience testing techniques

You have a great product. Your shopping cart is set up. The site is beautifully designed and visually appealing. Everybody you ask says so. You have purchased advertising. You hired an SEO specialist, and your site is getting traffic. Your stats show plenty of visits, but there's a problem:

Nobody is buying anything. Visitors are going no further than the landing page.

So what is wrong? You know you have a great product. You know it's a good deal. You spent all this time, energy and money getting it going. What do you do now?

Ideally you haven't gotten this far without discovering this problem, but if you have, you may need to rethink the way you have arranged your content. It could be that people either are having frustrations using your site, or worse, they can't find their way around at all. Even worse (and I hope this isn't your problem), people can't figure out what your product is.

You'd be surprised at how many sites have these problems. Luckily there are solutions.

QUICK FACT: Improving your site's User Experience (UX) is important for improving sales and conversions!

Usability

You need to think about the usability of your site, or more clearly, whether people figure out how to do what it is they wish to do or, more importantly, what you wish them to do. A site is usable if people can figure out how to find the information they need without trouble. They understand it intuitively without having to hunt around.  As most people have very short attention spans online, this is crucial for any site.

User Experience (UX)

Are your customers engaged enough in your site to care?

How is their experience? Is it frustrating? That's not a good thing. You could have a great product. If it's a product that they need and want and can't get elsewhere, this may not be as important, but as you probably already know, this is rarely the case. Somebody else sells the same thing, or at a better price. To be competitive, you need to offer something that others don't.

A common misunderstanding is that Usability and User Experience are the same thing. While there is a good deal of overlap between these two areas, they are not synonymous. A site can be usable, but lack a strong UX. Usability is part of UX, but not exclusive. This is best demonstrated by a couple of examples.

Example 1: Craigslist

Craiglist is an example of usability
Craigslist.org is a great example of usability.

Craigslist is an example of a website that runs completely counter to what a lot of experts state. It has almost no graphical content. There is no flashy presentation. It is almost entirely written in HTML 1.0.

Yet somehow it is one of the most popular sites on the internet. Is it the content? Sure, it has the largest listing of classified ads on the internet. But how did it get this content? All of this is submitted by users. So why does it work? Because it is usable. People know exactly what to do when they get there. It looks exactly like something they already understand. There's no confusion about what is there, and how to find it. It is a classic example of usability.

Now will this work for most eCommerce sites? Probably not. Craigslist makes no differentiation between different products; they are all the same. There's no push to purchase, there's no reason why people should actually buy a specific product.

Now let's look at a different example.

Example 2: Amazon

Amazon is a classic example of a site the approaches usability and UX at the same time. Amazon is similar to Craigslist in that it is a marketplace of a large number of items. There is one major difference; it is the fact that pretty much every item on the site has something which drives customers to purchase an item, and in many cases, more than one. The experiences provided to the user encourage people to stay on the site. Here are some examples:

Amazon user experience example
“Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” encourages people to purchase other items and is an example of user experience.
Amazon is an example of user experience
“Customer Reviews” provide honest feedback on items. Honesty leads to trust, which can lead to loyalty.

Now of course, you are probably thinking something like “These are huge websites. How can I possibly compete with these?”.

Well this may be true, however the main point is not to compete directly with large sites, but to use some of the concepts to help improve your content and encourage people purchase your product.

DID YOU KNOW? 88% of online consumers are less likely to return to a site after a bad user experience.

Improving Your Site's Usability/UX

The very first thing is to make sure that users don't have a negative experience. A poorly usable site will drive people away, severely reduce your chances of conveying your information or selling your product.

All of the below methods have advantages and drawbacks, however used together you can get some extremely valuable feedback to help you best present your website.

Trust Yourself

First of all, your own opinion is important.  Other than the obvious fact that you want to sell your product, try thinking about other sites you have used. Start off with these questions:

Q: Is there something you like?

Pay attention to things about sites you have visited, beyond their content that make you want to return

Q: Is there something you absolutely hate? Be absolutely certain you are not doing that!

For instance, does your browser freeze up due to a large amount of JavaScript running on your page? How about Flash? It takes up a lot of memory and more and more people are disabling it. Even if your content is fantastic, if either it causes frustration it's worse than useless. It will drive people away.

One common mistake I see a lot is that sites allow advertisers on their site to include a lot of these negative features. There's an old adage that can be taken from radio advertising.  Don't book ads that cause users to switch the station.  You may like the advertising revenue that they bring, but if it's nothing but click-bait and freezes the users browser? There's a good chance they will leave and never return.

frustrated user

Don't Trust Yourself

Sometimes we get too close to our content and/or our site design to be able to be objective. This gets worse with the amount of effort/money spent on it. For this reason, you will need to do some testing.

Usability/UX Testing Techniques You Can Use

Here are a few examples that can be done without too much effort. You will be better off if you do these earlier on in your development process, but it is also a good idea to revisit them just before your site launches, and also after it has launched. (Hey, there's always room for improvement, right?)

1. Hallway Testing

The easiest, yet still extremely valuable sort of testing you can do is to simply grab someone you know, a friend, or family member and solicit their opinion. You may find that they give you valuable information that you had not considered. It's easy to get frustrated by too much advice you get from this group, but it is absolutely worth paying attention to.

Advantages: It's easy and takes very little time

Drawbacks: You might either get a) dishonest answers, or b) overly personalized answers

2. Focus Group

This is essentially the same thing as hallway testing but with a group of others beyond those directly close to you. There are several activities that can be valuable with these groups. Don't worry if you don't have many people available. Evidence shows that the level of usefulness of insight for more than a few people starts to drop off after about 4 or 5 people.   This same rule applies to all of the methods described below.

One thing, however is clear: Testing even only one person is better than testing none.

3. Card Sorting

This is a helpful method if you have a more complex site with a large amount of information, and you want to structure the information in a way that is intuitive to users.

Users are given a stack of index cards marked with each page that will appear on your site. They are then instructed to sort these into stacks that would make the most amount of sense to them. They are allowed to identify which card is the name of the directory, or they may use a blank card to create a new subject area, or even a new item that they would wish to find on your site.*

Card sorting

Advantages: This approach provides a lot of insight into how people organize information and where they will look for answers

Disadvantages: Controlled environments may not match the real world. This may also not translate into actual results.

*This is one of the most valuable methods I have used in the past. Not only did I discover that I was organizing content differently than the way most people would, I identified several pieces of content that needed to be created to increase the usability/UX of the site.

4. Observation

Have users perform a series of tasks while given a set of instructions and record their responses. There are methods of doing eye tracking in professional labs that can see exactly where people are looking on a page from an masked observation room which can provide valuable insight, however there are less expensive ways of getting useful results.

As it may be difficult to gain access to an observation room, you can perform the testing while watching the subject over their shoulder, however evidence shows that people can sometimes get nervous, which will affect their behavior and therefore the results may be inaccurate. A better way involves using a computer with a separate monitor facing the other way. This way you can at least observe the mouse-movements of the user and gain valuable insight.

User observation test model

Advantages: This approach provides a lot of insight into how people move through a site. You can also observe what may or may not irritate people

Disadvantages: Controlled environments may not match the real world. Regardless of setup, users may be aware that they are being “tested” and may change their responses accordingly

5. A/B Testing

A/B Testing often occurs with already launched eCommerce sites. This involves creating two separate sites with the same product, but organized differently and measuring the difference in results/sales between the two. This approach is also commonly used with marketing.

Advantages: This can be extremely valuable and give you actual results about what works in the “real world.” You will know what method actually generates sales, and can switch to one of the other site depending on which one works best.

Drawbacks: You may be testing the wrong thing, or differences in the results could be the result of something entirely different. You may have designed two sites with so many pieces different that only one of those pieces had an effect but it's unclear which piece it is. You can break it down and identify individual pieces, but this can be somewhat expensive. You will need to built two or more full sites. One way of counteracting this is to only do A/B testing after you have employed a combination of the above methods.

Conclusion

Overall, simply the act of considering Usability and User Experience and using at least one or two of these methods as part of the development process in your eCommerce site should have a positive effect.

About the author


  • Jason Simon is a Web Developer and Usability expert who has been creating websites for over twenty years. He holds a Masters in Library and Information Science, and consults businesses, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions in organizing and converting complex data into clear and easy-to-understand information.

3 comments


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  • Emmerey Rose

    Thanks Jason for the tips! 🙂 I heard Google started penalizing sites that use extensive pop ups.

  • Emmerey Rose

    Great tips Jason. I was wondering, what do you think about pop ups? Does it disrupt UX?

    • Jason Simon

      HI Emmery,

      I generally believe that they do tend to disrupt the experience for most users. This is one of those cases where you need to trust your own instincts. How do you respond when you see one? Of course, there are some variations depending on which type of popup and how they are being used. For advertising I generally think they are a bad idea; unless the content is good enough to make a user deal with them, overall, they are an annoyance. For content related to the site, there’s a bit of variation. For quick tooltips or questions, I think they’re ok, though it’s probably better to create a good javascript rollover for those. Note that many people have popups blocked on their browsers so if the content is crucial, I’d consider not using them. Popovers, on the other hand are almost always negative. They are usually used exclusively for either advertising (advertisers will pay higher rates for these) or calls to action, such as a for a subscription, or to get someone to pay for more content. As a user, I find them extremely annoying, but will put up with them if the content is worthwhile. For most ecommerce sites, I’d say any of these are a no-no. You don’t want to drive people away. For a call to action, you can do in the checkout process (e.g. to add them to a newsletter). Just don’t make them take another step.

      Good luck!