Friday, November 12, 2010

Website Usability Testing - Figuring out the Black Box

Ever heard of the “black box”? It a scientific concept, used in research and development. The idea is based on pretty simple concepts:

  • Something goes into a system, like it's being plugged into a big black box.
  • Something happens to it in the system.
  • Then it comes out the other side, changed.

Then the scientists try and figure out, based on the way it changed, what happened inside the box.

There are lots of real-world examples of this. Driving a car is a good one. You sit in the seat, and you step on the gas. The car lunges forward. Most people do this several times a day, and don't even think about it. Most people have little or no clue what goes on under the hood and under the car that makes it go. They simply know that if they step on the gas (something going into the system), the car moves (something coming out of the system). In between those two things, it might as well be a dark black box.

But it would seem that knowing what goes on in the black box would be of real value. You would be able to tweak the box, or send in better stuff so that whatever comes out would be more like what you want. If you don't know what goes on in the box, it's all going to be a mystery.

Your website is very much the same way.

People come to your website. You spend a lot of time and effort bringing them there. Then, they leave your system in one of two outcomes. One, they simply leave and go somewhere else. Or, they buy something/sign up for something and then leave. In between is a mystery. Even the best tracking systems don't really give you a true, clear picture of what goes on, click-by-click, inside the black box that is your website.

To find that out, you'll need to do some face-to-face usability testing. Here are the steps:

  • Prepare the test

First of all, as with all tests, it's important to decide exactly what you want to know. How easy is it for my customers to find the products they want and buy them? Can they sign up for my newsletter? Can they find information they're looking for?

Come up with 3-4 specific tasks that you'd like your test subjects to complete. Vary them, but they should be important things your site contains. Put these in a list. Don't list the instructions on how to do the task, just the task itself. For example: “Find and purchase a blue Tiffany lamp.” or “sign up for the free information email”

  • Find the usability test subjects

The more people you have do the usability testing in your site, the more effective your information will be. 5-10 people will be a good range to start. If you have more time, you can do more. It's also good to get people with a variety of computer skills, from those that were born with a mouse in their hands, to people who barely know how to turn on a computer. Family and friends can be great usability testers.

  • Run the test

Sit down with your test subjects in front of a computer. You'll be watching over their shoulders, but you'll not be interacting with them. Load up your website, give them the list of tasks, and watch them do the tasks.

Here is the important part: To make your usability test true, DO NOT SPEAK TO THEM, or answer ANY questions. If they turn to you and ask, smile and shrug. If they make a comment, smile and write it down. DO NOT RESPOND. In the real world, people are visiting your site, and you can't talk them through it, either.

You'll pay attention to how long it takes them to complete the tasks, of course, but also watch the paths they take through your site as they do them. Do they struggle at any point? Is any part frustrating or confusing? Write all of these things down.

When they've either completed or given up on all of the tasks, then you can talk. Ask them about the experience overall, and for any additional comments.

Then, buy your test subject some soda and chips. They'll appreciate that!

  • Analyze

Once you've run these tests a few times, you'll see patterns. Some of them will be good ones, others will point out problems or bottlenecks in your navigation. The beauty of usability testing, if it's done right, is that it will provide you with stark reality. You'll see, first-hand, how your customers are interacting with your website. Powerful stuff.

Then you'll be in a position to make some real changes to your site to improve the user experience. And that will improve your bottom line.


Mark is currently in the curriculum Department of an internet and SEO training company.

Mark also has other sites and blogs, including Mark's Black Pot - Dutch Oven Recipes, and his MoBoy blog.