Is your website converting visits to revenue efficiently enough? Getting people to fill out a registration form or click through on an offer is difficult, but getting it right is critical in the battle for revenue and market share. The most effective thing you can do is to learn directly from your users how to lay out your site and what to offer.
The benefits of this approach are well-documented, but the example that resonates with most of us is the ACA or "Obamacare" website. This site was built the way many publisher sites are, without doing any usability testing up front. We all know how that turned out.
Let’s review the typical approaches taken by publishers:
Focus Group of One
Use internal staff as "stand-ins" for your users. Editors know their readers, so this should work, right? It’s popular because it’s really easy. The dismal results of this approach are everywhere.
Research Best Practices
Study the latest best practices in user interface design, lean UX, persuasion architectures, and the many sources of insight about how to remove friction from your conversion funnels. This is worthwhile, and applying these lessons to your site will likely generate measureable improvement.
However, there are problems. Which expert do you believe? How do the cumulative results of user behavior on many other sites compare to your users, your industry and your content?
Best practices give you insights like "send your newsletter on Tuesday morning" or "make action buttons bigger." They can’t be specific to your users because they represent aggregated, normalized data, not detailed feedback. Researching and applying best practices is a lot better than the focus group of one, but it’s still a scattershot approach.
A/B or Multivariate Testing
Tools like Adobe Target, Google Experiments or Optimizely can allow you to test copy, layout and graphical elements to see which combinations yield the best conversion rate. What this kind of testing can’t reveal is why users like Page A more than Page B. You might get lucky, but this kind of testing is best used to optimize products that have already been designed with direct input from your users.
Usability testing involves the user going though a number of tasks while giving constant feedback to the researcher. Everything the user does is captured in a screen recording, and in a video that captures the user’s reactions at every stage. In this way researchers understand in detail how well users are able to use the website or app, what confuses or annoys them, and what they’d really like to see but don’t. Then you go build according to what you learned, and before launch, you test it again to make sure you got it right.
Think about the last major brand site that left you frustrated. For me it was trying to add minutes to my kids’ AT&T prepaid phones. An hour of bouncing between website and phone representatives finally finished what should have taken a minute of navigating and clicking. I can guarantee you that AT&T skipped usability testing, with a very frustrating result for millions of customers like me. Do you think a poorly-designed subscribe process is any less frustrating for your users?
Usability testing isn’t cheap (figure $20,000 to start) because it involves a lot of time, resources and logistics. That price tag is dwarfed by the amounts publishers regularly spend on designs that confuse and confound users. Publishers who apply usability as part of their regular process would prefer that you continue to view it as something that can be safely ignored. If you want to make more than incremental improvements in your next site redesign, budgeting for usability testing is a smart move.