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How to Test a Website in Ten Minutes

Usability testing is the most important thing you can do to… well, really, I think the sentence can end right there. If you are a designer, usability testing puts you in direct contact with users and the information you need to make the right thing the right way. If you are a marketer, usability testing draws out truths about your messaging that probably won’t make their way back to you without your seeking them out. If you are developer, usability testing uncovers all the strange oddities that tend to remain hidden to even the most qualified and technically trained eyes. The best bug-finders tend to be those who aren’t looking for them.

The point is, usability testing is equally important for everyone on the team. It should be a discipline — a posture or point of view within our working lives — not a discreet and perfunctory task among many.

Of course, the best way to ensure that is to simplify it. Usability testing tends to put visions of complexity in our heads — labs, technicians, equipment, etc., all of which come at a high cost of time and cash. Those visions are defeaters. They tend to elicit a fast “no,” despite how necessary they are. We assume that if we can’t go the full underground lab approach, we shouldn’t bother at all.

That’s wrong.

You can do a good user test in ten minutes.


What You’ll Need

You probably already have all of this stuff within reach right now. If not, you could probably get it in minutes.

  1. A quiet space. Out of the way, free from noise and distractions.
  2. A computer with a webcam.
  3. Screen-capture software: This will allow you to gather the information collected by your webcam, the computer’s microphone, and the screen into one consolidated interface.
  4. A volunteer: Most people assume that a volunteer for usability testing needs to correspond perfectly with a website’s target audience. So, in some cases, that persona might be very specific. They might need to have quite a lot of background information and understand industry jargon that most other people wouldn’t. While that person might make a perfect subject for persona verification testing or even a focus group addressing issues of messaging, and of course could be a usability testing volunteer as well, they’re not necessary. Really, the only qualification needed for a usability testing volunteer is basic digital literacy. Can they use a computer, surf the web, and talk about it? Since what we’re doing here is testing whether there are any barriers to proper use of the website, this is really all we need from our volunteers.
  5. A moderator: A.k.a., you. You’re there to provide the environment, the technology, and the process, but most importantly, you’re there to observe. Besides the information that the screen-capture software is designed to collect, you’ll be able to observe lots of other stuff and ask questions of your volunteer to draw out more information when you need it.
  6. A test plan: What we’re not doing here is taking a volunteer, sitting them down in front of a website, and asking them to click around a bit while we watch. Instead, we’re crafting specific test plans that address the core purpose and goals of a website with directly worded procedures for the volunteer to follow.


A Ten-Minute Website Test Plan

The purpose of a good website test plan is to test whether users are able to recognize, understand, and do things that are central to the strategic purposes of the site. This breaks down into a very simple (~10 minute) procedure. Once you go beyond ten minutes, fatigue sets in and will compromise the value you’re hoping to get from the test. Your test has two basic steps:

  1. Homepage Orientation: You want to give your volunteer 30 seconds to 1 minute to scan and review the homepage. You’ll want to ask them to outward process — verbally — what they’re seeing and thinking as they do this, but to avoid clicking any links that would take them away from the homepage. After that time has passed, you’ll ask them one simple question: “What is this website about?”
  2. 2-3 goal-focused tasks: Each task should address a specific goal you have for website visitors. Ask follow-up questions to clarify your volunteer’s experience. Examples:
    1. Can you find the upcoming webinar on the site and register for it?
    2. Please find the most recent article about _____. Can you subscribe to that content?
    3. What accessories are offered for _____? Can you add ____ to your cart and one accessory?
    4. If you wanted to get in touch with this company, how would you do that?

These tasks, which make up the bulk of the test, can really take any form that makes the most sense for your site. Also, if one uncovers something unique, or takes more time to work through, go with it and let the other questions wait or discard them. Good usability testing is a balance between the format and improvising around the immediate user experience.

Here are a few examples of how tasks might go:

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