Jun 10 2008

There’s Something Wrong With Your Website – You Just Don’t Know It

Computer User Shocked Usability WiseTime and time again, we encounter eCommerce retailers that think “they know their users”. And sure, most of them have a good idea of who they are. But knowing who they are is a different story than knowing how they act, what they like, and what they don’t like about your website. In fact, these behaviors and attitudes have a tremendous impact on the effectiveness of your eCommerce website converting visitors into buyers. The good news is, that you can gain insight into your users by performing user testing. An often-overlooked tool by eCommerce merchants, this tactic has typically been reserved for government organizations that are mandated to ensure their websites are accessible to everyone, and to large scale corporations with the wallet to fund user testing.

My experiences working with the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention demonstrated the value generated by performing usability testing – as there was a heavy emphasis on the usability of any page or site developed. Now, some of you may be asking yourself “I’m a small company, I can’t afford to hire a firm to bring users into a room for usability testing and feedback”. Others may be thinking, “why should I care about usability testing” or “I have more important things to worry about”. However, what you should be asking yourself is “what is the opportunity cost of not performing usability testing?

The Value of Usability Testing

Usability testing provides an essential feedback loop from your users telling you about their experiences on your website. Many eCommerce merchants spend countless hours thinking of ways to improve sales, constantly trying to answer that age-old question “Why are xx% of the users on my website not converting”. You can use analytics to draw some conclusions, you can perform surveys, and conduct some split or A/B testing to maximize those conversion rates. However, all of these methods combined may not provide the feedback for the most important question you should be asking: “How user friendly is my site?”

The visitors to your website will decide in a matter of seconds if they will not only stay on your website, but also follow through with a conversion. These split second decisions are based on a few factors, but primarily your site’s design, and it’s user-friendliness. Many eCommerce merchants get trapped into thinking that their professionally designed website will take care of that decision on its own, overlooking the fact that while their site may look great, it might not be very intuitive to use, and even alienating their users to the point of leaving your site altogether.

The Feedback Loop

Website User testing allows you that valuable piece of information that just might clue you in on some big reasons why people are not converting on your website. Although there are other forms of gathering this data, usability testing allows you to target your demographic and get real-time, in-action responses to your website. This type of feedback presents the most valuable, true to life experience of your users and is ultimately going to give you actionable insight on how to improve the usability of your site, and in the end, conversions. You may be surprised on the feedback you receive and actually get ideas that you’ve never even thought of. When you run a website day in and day out, and you have in depth knowledge about your products or industry, and were probably involved in the original design of the website, it becomes very difficult to take a step back and look at your site from the eyes of a customer.

How to Perform User Testing Yourself

There are options out there for merchants today that they can leverage to gain valuable insight without dropping a huge chunk of change for a facilitator to run these usability testing sessions.

One of these options is from a website UserTesting.com. They offer a $19 flat fee per user review of your website. These reviews are delivered as audio and video recorded screencasts of actual, demographically selected users as they browse, and shop on your website. That allows small startups to at least get some level of usability testing by using just a few testers, and other large firms to hire hundreds or thousands of reviews at a price that can’t be beat vs. traditional means.

Now, it’s not all that simple because as you manage this testing yourself, you need to be prepared to handle the data, the feedback, compile results, and determine conclusions and actionable items based on that feedback. Where a firm would be able to handle all of that for you and present you with a nice, clean report, you’ll have to perform those steps yourself.

There’s some tips to follow for practical usability testing, as well as a variety of resources published about basic usability concepts and practices. My suggestion is to jump in, test a few (or even one) review of your website to test the waters, if you like what you see, multiply that out and get a broad base of responses that you can use to make some conclusions. [Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with UserTesting.com, and this is not an advocacy of their service, but is intended to be used as an example of a company that offers user testing for a reasonable price]

The Balancing Act of Usability and Design

A lot of the feedback I hear about websites that emphasize usability, is that they’re plain and ugly. As an online retailer, you have to make careful considerations when it comes down to one or the other. A great looking website can be terribly difficult to use, while a highly usable site may not be graphically appealing. By performing usability testing, you’ll not only get feedback on the usability alone, but also the design, in turn helping you to define that line of design vs. usability. You don’t have to sacrifice one vs. the other, and the goal is to get them to work in harmony.

Kevin Eichelberger

Founder & CEO

Founded in 2008, Blue Acorn is the product of Kevin’s great passion and knowledge of all things eCommerce. Kevin’s data-driven approach has culminated in a strong, growing business that’s success is closely tied to the success of its clients. When he’s not immersing himself in eCommerce, Kevin works toward expanding Charleston’s tech community by serving as a board member for the Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation, and is also a mentor and advisor to several startups. A business-savvy technologist, you can find Kevin evangelizing about data, optimization and eCommerce.


Justin @ Palmer Web Marketing
Jun 20 2008

You’re right on about the opportunity cost of not doing usability testing. I’m shocked everytime I do this with a client, and we discover issues that would have never been detectable with regular web analytics.

I recently came across Clicktale, a service that records select visitors via simple Javascript code. They have a free version, but its somewhat stripped down.


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