The reasons for and ways of accomplishing usability studies on complex web applications are well documented. They increase user satisfaction and retention, they reduce user frustration and training—in short they add business value in obvious ways. There are a lot of known ways of doing this testing, too. You can use discount methodologies, testing only a few users; you can use scientific labs, or test hundreds of participants. You can measure error rates and task completion time or you can seek out qualitative feedback.
But what about simple websites—marketing websites whose main purpose is to convey information? Is it important to test those? If so, how do you go about usability testing marketing messages, content and visual design?
Should You Test Simple Websites?
While simple websites (e.g. marketing websites with no “back-end”) do not have the functionality or complexity of a web application, they certainly can have the business value. Take Atomic’s simple website (http://atomicobject.com) for example.
Not all of our business comes from our website, (that is to say, from search) but almost all of our potential customers spend time on our website before contacting us. They use it to vet us as a vendor, looking at our previous work, our services, our people and our culture before giving us a call.
Because of this, our marketing site is very important to us. It makes testing it especially important as well. If we only talk to people that do end up calling us we have a rather biased sample of people. What about the people that didn’t call? In what ways did the website fail them? It might be that they simply got frustrated trying to figure out whether or not we offered training. Or maybe they were turned off by the tone of voice. Perhaps they didn’t see their industry represented? These are the types of unknowns we can begin to address using usability testing.
How to Test Simple Websites
Creating a Plan
You can approach testing a simple website in much the same way you would a complex site. You begin with desired learning outcomes, you create user tasks that support these learning outcomes, and you develop a series of metrics that you will be tracking.
The learning outcomes of a typical marketing site are best supported by user research of some kind. During our website redesign effort at Atomic we interviewed existing and potential customers to ask them what they were using to vet us as a vendor—what questions did they have visiting our website, what were they looking to validate or learn?
Having knowledge of your customers’ concerns before designing content and conducting usability tests is ideal. That way their goals as users of your website can guide your learning outcomes for your study. In other words, you need to know what your customer’s goals are before you test how successfully they’ll be able to accomplish them.
Testing Visual Design
It’s difficult to get quality feedback on visual design from the usability test format. But it doesn’t hurt to begin a testing session by asking the user’s opinion on the overall look and feel of the site. Don’t ask whether they like the site or not. First, it’s a yes or no question so it won’t give you much insight. It’s also a loaded question, especially if the user feels compelled to be nice. A better way to test their impression of the site is to ask them what kind of company they think this is. Consider translating the page into an unfamiliar language (using Google Translate) and then asking them. This sort of open-ended question may yield some insights into how your branding is perceived. Hopefully you can see if it reflects your desired brand (e.g. “Trustworthy” or “Cutting-Edge,” as the case may be).
Testing your content is very important—for complex and simple sites—but it is often overlooked. To test content, you can give the user a series of questions relating to the content (sounds like high school, right?) and measure the accuracy of their answers and the time it takes them to find them. As always, it’s very important to remind users that you are not testing them, but the site. Also, encouraging users to think aloud will give you insight into their thought processes.
For these content-related questions, you should use a combination of open-ended and direct questions. For instance, if you had the learning outcome: “Do people understand what we do and is this information easy to find?”, you could test this by asking a user to tell you “what they think this company does.” A more direct approach to this learning outcome might be asking them to find specific information, like whether or not they’ve worked in X or Y industry before, and seeing how long it takes them to find this information.
For more information on testing content, see this great article by A List Apart called, fittingly, Testing Content.
Other ways to improve content: Do your research
During Usability Week 2011 Brittany and I learned about an experiment the Nielsen Norman Group conducted on different web writing styles. They compared the comprehension of four different writing styles (Promotional—which was the control—Concise, Objective, and Scannable). They found improvements for all three over the Promotional site. They then ran a study comparing the Promotional prose vs prose that was concise, objective, and scannable. The overall usability of the consise, objective and scannable site was 124% better than the original promotional version, the largest improvement yet, as measured by task time, user errors, memory, sitemap usage, and subjective satisfaction.
As you can see, you don’t have to rely solely on testing to assess your site’s effectiveness. Knowing your customers beforehand gives you an upper hand with respect to designing content that they find helpful. Also, following the research of firms like NNG, who recommend writing content that’s scannable (larger fonts, headers, text decoration, bullets and smaller paragraphs) objective (avoids gratuitous words of praise for your product/service and just states facts) and concise, can help you improve the user’s ability to find and remember information before you test. You can also make use of learning from other’s sites. No need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to your marketing site. There is plenty of conventional wisdom about what features these sorts of sites need. A competitive analysis is a great way to start your website’s redesign effort (don’t forget to test your existing site, too!).
What this testing can’t tell you
This method of testing helps assess the usability of your site’s content, but not necessarily how convincing it is. Such testing provides a way of evaluating comprehension, not persuasion. Testing for persuasion might be better accomplished through a live A/B test, where you can see the conversion rates on different messages. Of course, as Carl has written about, quantitative web analytics don’t always tell you what you really need to know about your customers. This remains a challenge for any firm which takes a thought leadership approach to marketing.