Leveraging Usability Testing for Smarter A/B Testing

  |  January 26, 2014   |  Comments   |  

Talking to customers can be incredibly useful -- here's how to combine analytics and user research for better testing in five steps.

Understanding where and what to test on a website is a process of looking at both quantitative and qualitative data. Yet most digital marketers who practice optimization seem to rely more heavily on analytics while sidestepping one of the most valuable practices of marketing: talking to actual customers.

Why Do Digital Marketers Hate Talking to Customers?

We’re always trying to do more with less in our jobs. Being able to log into Google Analytics is quick, easy, and doesn’t require us to rely on anyone else to find answers. And while user and usability testing can be fast and effective, it seems there’s a notion of talking to customers will take too much time, money, and effort.

Combining Analytics and User Research for Better A/B Testing

The benefit of digital marketing is that you have more potential reach than ever before. The downside is that your online marketing efforts will largely stand on their own when trying to convert customers. Therefore, it’s crucial to not only understand what is happening (e.g. I’m losing visitors in the second step of the checkout process), but why it’s happening (e.g. The pricing information is confusing).

A great first step is to use your analytics data to discover blockages in your funnel and overall user experience: how are people coming to your site, how are they using it, and where are they getting stuck. But you shouldn’t stop there. Depending on the trouble area or problem you’re trying to solve, a plethora of usability and user experience tools exist to provide a better understanding of why the blockage is occurring and what you can do to solve and test out of it.

Getting User Feedback Is Easier and More Valuable Than You Probably Think

Usability and user experience tools can work in a variety of ways (e.g. human-to-human, task elicitation, enhanced analytics, etc.), but one of the best and most effective things you can do to understand the "why" is through a 30-minute usability test with a live person. I swear it’s easier and less painful than it sounds!

1. Recruit three users from your target audience. There are tools on the market like Ethnio that are effective at recruiting visitors directly from your website. While it’s always better to have participants from your target audience, don’t shy away from user testing if you can’t find the ideal visitor. Recruit friends from online, neighbors from your building, or strangers from a local café. User testing on someone is always better than user testing on no one. Get as close to your target audience you can and offer an incentive (e.g. $25 Amazon gift card) to make it easier to find participants!

Note: Don’t bother recruiting more than five users for each user research round. What you’ll find is that you’ll see most of the same issues through only three usability tests.

2. Keep the sessions short and record everything. Most sessions should only last 30 minutes. I typically book them back-to-back with a small break in between so I can write up my notes. Whether you’re doing it over the phone or in-person, record the screen and audio. I’m a big fan of Camtasia Studio for recording my sessions, but there are lots of options on the market. Recording the user test will relieve you from taking notes during the session, but it can also be a great way to show clients or your boss feedback straight from a potential customer.

3. Plan your tasks. Based on what you found during the analytics stage, come up with a few tasks for users to perform. These tasks should go through the trouble spots on your website (i.e. where you’re losing visitors) so you can understand exactly why the problem is occurring.

  • Some examples of tasks would be buying a product, finding more information around how something works, or calculating the cost of a service.

4. Have your paperwork ready and always stick to the script. Steve Krug has a great sample script and permission form for usability tests that you can adapt for your sessions. Try to remember that usability testing should be thought of as a spectator sport. It can be easy to lead users or improvise, but the best user tests allow the participants to go through their natural process for the tasks you’ve set. Try to only speak when you’re explaining a task, trying to get an opinion or clarify a response.

5. Encourage your participants to think out loud as well as provide criticism and suggestions. The goal of these sessions should be to get inside a user’s head. Be prepared to ask, "What are you thinking?" during your session to remind participants to think out loud. Also, always ask your participants for suggestions. This not only validates user’s feedback but can provide insights into how you can fix usability or user experience issues.

Try and Make Your Solutions as Lean as Your Usability Testing

Once you have your user feedback, you’ll have lots of ideas on how to fix the trouble areas on your website. While it can be easy to start dreaming up new functionality or designs, try to first determine action items that you can take to solve your user’s issues as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. Often, it requires a lot less work than you think (e.g. More information, clearer call-to-action, etc.).

Finally, test your solutions through an A/B split test to ensure you’re improving the usability and user experience. Not everything needs to be A/B tested, though. You might find things on your site that are just broken and in obvious need of addressing. However, in most cases, solutions should be validated through testing so you’re certain you’re making a situation better and not worse.

So stop solely relying on analytics that provide only half the story! With such little cost and effort, usability testing should be a regular part of your online optimization process.

Image title via Shutterstock.

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Breanne Maliniak

Breanne Maliniak is a user experience and conversion rate optimization consultant. With over 5 years of experience in the digital space, her passion is balancing business and consumer needs to improve her clients’ profitability. With years of consulting for clients of all sizes in B2B and B2C industries, she firmly believes that a company’s success relies on happy customers and works on helping organizations discover and connect user experience to every facet of their business. By doing extensive research, Breanne’s passion for creating targeted data-driven optimization strategies has led to successful projects with marquee clients such as SAP, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, Yves Saint Laurent, Hewlett-Packard and Aberdeen Asset Management. In 2010, Breanne was recognized with the HSMAI Adrian Award for the Best Search Marketing Strategy.

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