I visited a fantastic looking website last week. Beautiful imagery. Great looking font. Nice layout. At first glance, everything seemed to be pointing in the right direction. And yet as I moved around the site I came across a number of issues, both in terms of navigating the site and with accessing content.
Hiccups like these are often part and parcel when it comes to website build, and should play a vital role in identifying (and overcoming) any potential issues before the site goes live. And yet user experience testing is often a forgotten element that falls to the bottom of the pile, with many opting for aesthetic quality over the customer journey.
It goes without saying that quality design is essential, but given the thousands of pounds that many brands are willing to plough into a website, it should not be one at the cost of the other. It is essential that agencies start pushing usability testing as standard in order to produce something that looks good, inside and out.
In my first job at a big web design agency in Manchester back in early 2000, I was often placed in the usability and testing department for a day per week. I hated it. It was the most boring thing.
We would be testing gambling games, football club websites, online shop checkout processes and everything inbetween. As an ambitious young graphic designer fresh out of university, I found this an incredibly bad use of my time.
However I look back on those days now with a huge amount of fondness as it made me see what a huge impact user experience testing has.
A website may be doing everything in terms of aesthetic appeal, but can often fall short from a customer perspective. Usability tests are key to uncovering navigation issues, determining content relevance and highlighting overall design effectiveness as well as pinpointing the odd technical issue that may have been overlooked.
There is no shortcut for independent feedback and getting people to physically sit down in front of the site to identify any problems from the offset, providing vital feedback that an agency can take on board and respond to accordingly.
At AHOY, we have seen things emerge from user experience testing that have totally surprised us. We worked with a client recently who was adamant that his competitor’s website navigation and flow was superior to his own site.
We wanted to test this, and to test it on the client’s existing site before designing his new one. Feedback from the study was the total opposite of what both we and the client predicted. If we hadn’t taken part in any user testing, we would not have discovered this.
So if it makes such good sense, why aren’t more agencies offering user experience testing as part of the package?
There are a number of reasons: firstly a false perception of expense. User testing may have been expensive historically but technology now enables solutions such as crowd sourcing which make the process of usability testing more affordable, streamlining time as well as costs. You do not need hundreds of participants either, with as few as five well-chosen testers often enough to provide a general consensus for a simple test.
There is also a feeling amongst agencies that usability testing can put them in a vulnerable position, perhaps seeming like the agency has not delivered the right results. However when the end game is the overall success of the website to meet the customer’s business objectives, agencies should be encouraging clients to challenge their work.
Ironing out the creases
At its core, usability tests are a perfect opportunity to iron out the creases before a website goes live, making for an improved visitor experience as a result.
This in turn encourages users to act in a positive way, whether the site has inspired the visitor to make a purchase or simply created a browsing experience that prompts them to return.
Moving forward, we can only hope that this becomes standard across the industry, as both agencies and brands recognise the importance of testing in creating a user friendly website with no obstacles – an essential element when it comes to connecting brands with their audiences.
Words: Mark Stringer
Mark Stringer is managing director at award-winning digital agency AHOY.