Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three, Testing

When I’m doing a live sound project, setting up a PA system for a band or a speaker, I’ve got to make sure that it’s working right long before the show. I plug everything in where it’s supposed to go and then I turn it all on and step up to the mic. “Testing, testing, one, two, three…” Then I know it’s ready for the talent.

Your website is no different. You’ve spent a lot of time and hard work getting your site up and running. You’ve written and re-written the text. You’ve added the graphics, and placed the products. You’ve organized your internal navigational linking. You’re set! You’re good to go, right?

Well, almost.

Consider one final step, that of testing. Run your site through a few paces before you throw open the doors and let the public run rampant over it.

Your first thought might be to have mom and dad, your sibs, and maybe even your kids look it over. “Tell me what you think,” you might say. Trust me, the results of a question like that might be encouraging, even flattering, but they won’t be very useful. Because they lack direction. Their comments don’t have the focus to give you any real information. “Cool website!”, while helping you feel good, won’t tell you that certain parts of certain pages are confusing, or that the purpose of the overall site is unclear.

So, to get good feedback, you have to ask the right questions, and in the right circumstances.

First of all, gather some names of people you’d like to experience test your website. Mix them up. Male, female, young, old. Everyone can help. Find some that are experienced and web savvy, and some that hardly know what a mouse is.

Then, gather some questions you’d like to have answered about your site. Actually, a better word than “questions” is “tasks”. What do you want your audience to be able to do? Make a list of three to four specific tasks. Here’s a sample list:

· Find and buy a left-handed wind shifter
· Find and read the article on modern weather patterns
· Sign up on the weather-watcher’s newsletter list

Make the tasks very specific, but don’t include any instruction as to how to do it. Just state the task.

Also prepare some comprehension questions. When your test subjects answer these questions, it’ll tell you how well you explained yourself on your site. This is particularly important if your product or your business model is very unique. Here’s some samples from that short list:

· Tell me what you understand the overall purpose of the site to be
· Tell me what you understand about what a left handed wind shifter is and how it works.

Finally, you can prepare questions about their overall response to the site itself. Even though you can get more vague in these questions, it’s still a great idea to avoid the temptation to say, “What did you think?”

· Was it interesting?
· Did it look nice and comfortable?
· Was it easy to get around in it?

Once you’ve prepared the questions, sit one of your subjects down at a computer, load up the site and give them the tasks. It will be their job to explore the site and try to accomplish the tasks. It will be your job to shut up and take notes. Notice that I said, “Shut up.” That’s critical. Your test subject might from time to time turn to you and ask a question. What do you do? Smile, shrug your shoulders, and stay silent. The visitors, your potential customers, won’t be able to look back behind them and ask you a question.

But make a note of where they were and what question they had. That could indicate a problem area of the site.

Watch how they go about completing the tasks. Notice not only how long it takes them to do it, but also what paths they take to get there. Pay special attention if they struggle with a particular task, or a particular page in the site.

Once each tester has completed the tasks, then ask them the questions, and make note of their answers. Do this same process with each tester, and you’ll start to notice trends, bottlenecks, problem spots. Then you’ll want to fix them.

Won’t that be great? You get to know how effective your site is before you launch. You can fix your problems before the traffic comes, instead of wondering how many sales that cost you! In my latest Internet venture,, I invited people to test it who I knew were interested in the subject matter. Over thirty of them joined the newsletter for real right away! And that was BEFORE the launch date!

So, test it, check it, make it work. And then the show will begin!

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