A Little User Testing Goes a Long Way

If you’re in a grocery store and can’t find something, you ask a cashier to help you out. In a mall, you ask a sales rep. Online, you’re all alone. You could try sending the company an email (you might get an email back), but usually you’re pretty much stuck.

Consumer confusion could be one of the worst obstacles we face as Internet marketers. If a user gets so confused she doesn’t buy or sign up, if she gets so frustrated she tells others to avoid the site, or if she can’t figure something out and never comes back, we’ve got a serious problem. Luckily, user testing can help avoid such situations.

Something that looks good on a white board or on a designer’s iMac may not be clear to the average user. But if you don’t sit a real user in front of the screen and watch his brow furrow in consternation, you may never know. Often we forget to make things easy for those who aren’t web savvy. There are a few users out there who are still new to the Internet (about 103 million by 2004, according to IDC Research), and they may need some help occasionally.

The following are just a few of the benefits of user testing:

User testing can clear up small annoyances. Small things can add up to big confusion if ignored. If you have a form that asks for an email address, provide an example, such as: yourname@anyisp.com. Do this for all fields where the input could vary, such as date formatting. Specify how dates should be entered, for example, mm/dd/yy or mm/dd/yyyy, or even dd/mm/yyyy for international use. And the same applies to phone numbers: spaces, no spaces, or dashes? If you’re asking for information that seems incongruous or requires some specific knowledge, provide a link to clearly define the question. Every chance to confuse a user is a chance you may lose the user.

User testing can improve site usability and functionality. One web site had a problem with its login screen. New users were supposed to click on a “New User?” button to register for an account, but the button was at the bottom of the page. When the company conducted user testing, it found that new users were filling out the login information (username and password) without seeing the “New User?” button. So when users got errors, they became confused and frustrated. Watching several users make the same mistake allowed the company to make a small fix and greatly improve the ease of registration. Now new users see the button first, before they type in a username and password.

User testing helps you identify potential high-risk situations that create consumer confusion. One company tried to get its users to try a new feature. However, this feature was at a subcategory level, and user testing showed that users were virtually unable to find it. A new process brought users directly to the new feature and usage doubled. Apparently, a little user testing can go a long way.

So do it. Bring some users in. Do it as early as you can. According to Jakob Nielsen, you need to test with only five users to find 85 percent of the problems. These users can be your family and friends, as long as they’ve never used your site before. Give them $30 each, watch them try to use your site’s new features, and I guarantee you’ll learn something.

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