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Conduct Usability Tests on a New Website

Before you sit down with users in front of a computer to test your new or redesigned website, you need to get them to sign a release form and let them know you’re videotaping the website testing session. If you are testing with minors, you need to check state laws on videotaping them.

Before you start the test, prepare your users by reviewing the scenario and the task list and describing how you plan to conduct the test. Tell them (for example) that

  • You’ll be asking a few questions about each task, and taking notes.

  • They should vocalize their stream of thoughts and reactions as they work through a task.

  • They can criticize the design or express doubts such as “I’m not sure what that button does or where it will take me.”

  • If they can’t do something, it’s probably the design’s fault and the reason they are here today. So they shouldn’t feel stupid about not completing any of the tasks or voicing their honest reactions.

  • They’re looking at a semi-functional prototype, and not all the functionality is hooked up yet. Ask them to tell you where they would click before clicking, and to tell you what they expect will happen when they click.

Start on the first page of your HTML click-through and ask the user to complete the first task. Then, sit back and start taking notes as they talk out loud about what they’re thinking. Observe where their eyes and the mouse go on the screen. You should hear them say things like “I’m looking for a Search field. I should be able to just type what I want to find and click a button.” Give them some time to think through the problem before you ask any questions about the task.

Avoid asking leading questions that give clues, such as “Do you think that this Search button looks clickable?” Not only are you pointing out a button that users should find on their own, but you’re also expressing doubt about the button’s design — thus skewing their perception of it.

Because your click-through storyboard is limited in its functionality and only illustrates a couple of paths through each task, you must moderate each click. As soon as users tell you where they would click, ask them what kind of page they expect to see next. If they choose a button that you’ve enabled for the prototype, let them click and then gauge their reaction as they view the next page.

If they choose a path that’s not illustrated in your click-through, they may have just given you a great alternative way of navigating to consider. On the other hand, maybe your interface isn’t clear. After they guessed “wrong,” show them the path that you’re proposing and ask them what they think. They may yield and tell you “Oh, that makes more sense, I just didn’t see the button,” or they may say, “That makes no sense at all.” If their response is the former, you need to redesign the button or put it in a different place. If they say the design makes no sense at all, ask them (in a spirit of polite curiosity) if they can think of a better way to perform the task.

After the user completes a task, or you notice that the user is stuck, ask the bulk of your remaining questions and then ask for opinions on the best ways to do the task. After you wrap up the task and your questions, move on to the next task. Each task should take about 15 minutes to complete.

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