Not Doing Website Usability Testing? Are You Nuts?


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“Not doing usability testing? Are you nuts?” said web usability expert Steve Krug at the Conversion Conference in New York last week. According to Krug, “All sites have serious usability problems. Tuning a website without fixing the problems is like painting over potholes.”

Krug is arguably the man who put website usability testing on the map with his seminal book ‘Don’t Make Me Think.’ If you haven’t read it, this is the one book on website design that everyone that has anything to do with websites should read.

Krug is an incredibly likable character. He has a self-depreciating style and dry humor that makes him an engaging and entertaining speaker. As a usability consultant for 20 years, he is naturally an advocate for testing. “My solution for everything is usability testing. Admittedly, I’m a guy with a hammer…” he says, but he is the first to acknowledge that website usability testing is not hard. His mission is to teach the skills to all ecommerce teams, because usability testing should be a continuous process, and “Who can afford to hire a usability consultant all the time?” he asks.

Usability Testing Defined

Krug defines a usability test as “watching people try to use what you create, while thinking out loud. You’re really trying to get the person to verbalize what’s going through their head.”

He’s at pains to point out that usability testing is not a focus group. Focus groups solicit opinions. Usability is about watching people try to do things. The insights come thick and fast in a usability test, when visitors struggle to complete the simplest and seemingly obvious (to the designer) website tasks.

The advantages of usability testing are that you can make a real difference in the way that visitors are able to interact with your website:

  • Moves you away from designing by personal biases
  • Creates a shared experience for the team, which helps build consensus
  • Gives you an ‘ah ha’ moment when the designers realize that their users are ‘not like us’

A/B tests give you different insights from usability tests, because A/B tests are quantifying differences. Usability tests give you qualified insights — there’s no substitute for watching and hearing users describe how they are struggling with your beautifully designed site. It helps you realize that you’ve missed the mark. Krug advises: “Make it a spectator sport for the entire web design team. The act of actually watching people trying to use your stuff makes you a better designer.”

Most websites don’t get tested in this way for two key reasons:

Usability testing doesn’t get done because building a website is such a painful process in the first place; it takes too long and costs too much already. There’s an understandable fear that testing will inevitably slow the process down, cost more, and find a whole host of new problems that need fixing.

And it’s true. It will.

Usability testing always produces a huge laundry list of problems. Fixing problems is no fun; it takes far less resources to find problems than fix them. Krug’s advice is to get consensus on the top five problems, not in terms of how hard they are to fix, but in terms of the impact on the site.

Some problems will be harder to fix than others, and some will be easy. Most web development teams will naturally want to check off the easy to fix items. Krug maintains that this is a flawed approach because of the assumption that the bigger problems will be fixed in the next redesign. “The next redesign is like the messiah; when the messiah comes, everything will be fine.” The net results are that the bigger problems often do not get fixed.

Krug’s advice is to work from the top of the list, starting with the most serious problem, irrespective of how hard it is to fix. Then focus on what’s the smallest fix that would solve the problem observed in the usability tests. This is effectively tweaking, painting over the cracks to make the site more usable without any re-architecting. “Tweaking has a bad reputation, kind of associated with duct tape,” Krug maintains, “but tweaking will fix the problem fastest, whereas a redesign will be complex, involve lots of people, and may never happen.”

It’s worth reiterating that the benefits of usability testing significantly outweigh the challenges: making your website more intuitive will have a significant impact on conversions.

*Photo credit: Tim Ash, SiteTuners

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Charles Nicholls
Charles Nicholls is a social commerce expert and board advisor to several e-commerce startups. He founded SeeWhy, a real-time personalization and machine learning platform, which was sold to SAP. Serving as SVP of product, he built SAP Upscale Commerce, an e-commerce platform for direct-to-consumer brands and the mid-market. Today, Charles serves as chief strategy officer for SimplicityDX, a commerce experience company. He has worked on strategy and projects for leading ecommerce companies worldwide, including Amazon, eBay, Google and many others.


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