With the job of promoting websites for a living, online marketers tend to think we have it all figured out. We think we have a pretty good idea as to how your site’s visitors will experience your site. We think we know the calls to action that will inspire your visitors to click. We think we know the most logical way to organize information on your site.
But the truth of the matter is we don’t know *Insert a four letter word of your choice here*. To give us some credit, online marketers are arguably the best equipped to make such presumptions. After all, designing and marketing websites on a daily basis gives us a fair amount of insight as to how audience(s) (There is rarely ever just one) will likely interact with your website. Where many online marketers stray from best practices however is after understanding your audience(s), they then develop a site based on their own assumptions — and you know what your mom says assuming does to “u” and “me”. Even with years of expertise in web design, the only true party that knows how your audience will interact with your website is…your audience.
The task of studying how users experience your website is what the web development industry calls “usability”. Typically, usability studies are performed prior to the launch of a new website; however, they can also be used to improve the experience of an existing design. The 3 main goals of any usability study are to:
1. Gain insight through observation as to how your audience interacts with your website
2. Reduce the amount of time it takes for your audience to accomplish a particular task
3. Make the website experience more satisfying for your audience
One of the most essential steps in the website development process is the creation of the site architecture. Developing your site architecture refers to the process of organizing website content and when done correctly, is 100% focused on your audience (O.K. maybe 80% audience, 20% search engines). The site architecture process begins with the construction of the site map, which is the equivalent to a building’s blueprint in traditional architecture. The site map will display the hierarchy of the navigation and the relationship of each web page to one another. With most websites, the site architecture is often incorrectly chosen based on how the person creating the website “feels” it should be organized. There is one problem with this approach. That person is probably not a member of the site’s intended audience. And even if he/she were, a sample size of one is far too small to justify the website’s structure being based on that one person’s opinion. Enter card sorting studies.
Card sorting usability studies are performed before design work even begins on the website. The first card sorting tests involved writing out all of the web pages or content topics on cards, and then asking members of your intended audience(s) to organize or sort the cards into groups. After compiling the results from many different participants, you should then be able to better understand how your audience members would organize the content if they were creating the website. Comparing the groups of cards to your very own site map will help you identify any flaws in your logic and will help to inform future decisions regarding content. These days, the notecards used in card sorting studies have been adapted for the web. Online tools such as Optimal Workshop and WebSort provide card sorting at a reasonable cost to businesses.
Another set of usability studies attempts to gain a better understanding of design aspects that may be helping or hindering your website design. While you may think the process of filling out an online form on your website is intuitive, direct observations of a user struggling with the form could help you identify potentially catastrophic failures in usability before the site is made live. These studies can also help you streamline your processes, decreasing either the time or the amount of steps to perform a desired task. Through the miracle of recorded webcam sessions, video tools like UserTesting.com and whatusersdo, offer Internet marketers the opportunity to gaze over their intended audiences’ shoulder as they interact with their website. Survey tools such as EasyUsability.com and Feedback Army, add another aspect to the experience by including a list of open ended questions for each participant to answer after interacting with the website.
The last set of usability studies I wanted to address can be performed both before and after launch of a website. The actions that a business desires their visitors to perform will vary depending on the specific goals that the business has for their website. With an E-commerce site, that primary goal is to drive online purchases. With a branding site, that goal may be to increase the # of individuals following that business on Twitter. Regardless of the goal, Click tools such as ClickTale and navflow allow marketers to view click and mouse movement data of participants interacting with their website. These tools create visualizations of what grabs participants’ attention and are great indications of the most important real estate on your site. Combining these tools with conversion optimization tools, such as Google’s website optimizer, can help online marketers improve the effectiveness of their calls to action, and can ultimately result in improved ROI for their website.