I had an eye-opening look back at the usability testing I’ve led over the past 18 years.

It was while prepping to guest lecture at a local university. I hadn’t realized the scope of tactics and techniques to tailor the testing to the client’s situation.

  • Methods ranged from paper prototypes to online remote tests, to guerrilla testing and formal lab settings for desktop and mobile.
  • Results reporting took the form of story cards, formal reports and presentations, video highlights and lowlights, and triage sessions.

Regardless of the combination of tactics, the desired outcome is the same: learn more about customer behaviours, discover flaws and opportunities to improve the website experience for your customers.

The purposes for testing also varied greatly. I identified 6 different reasons:

  1. Develop your product
  2. Gain consensus early on from stakeholders
  3. Gain customer support and fine-tune the UX
  4. Check out the competition
  5. Build a business case for a redesign
  6. Win business

You may have noticed these each address a different time in a website’s life cycle, from development and launch, to active and ongoing, to sun-setting. Understanding customer behaviours is important all the time.

The usability of your site is changing even when you do nothing. Because you do nothing.

Let’s take a closer look at why each of these reasons is important.

1. Develop your product

If your website is your product or service, or responsible for most of your business (or you want it to be) then usability testing is the cornerstone of your continuous improvement.

When you are getting ready for market, direct feedback from real customers is invaluable. When I was a product manager for a search engine I ran usability tests weekly for several months up to launch. Test findings were triaged, bugs fixed, and enhancements made on a weekly basis. And so every week I tested an improved product. Whether on a beta or an in-market product, this has significant value.

Benefits of testing during product development:
  • Shortened development time – On a weekly cycle, iteration happens fast and the team is focused on user priorities, not second-guessing what needs to be done
  • Reduced costs – Not second guessing means less rework and more getting it right the first time
  • Customer-centric culture – The whole team’s work is driven by the user. This becomes the lens for all product thinking, regardless of your role in the organization.
  • Positive atmosphere – We saw tangible improvements every week, demonstrating the value of the work. This spurred the team on more.

2. Gain stakeholder consensus early on

On a big website project with lots of stakeholders, opinions, and internal politics, it is important to gain consensus and align everyone throughout the project. Usability testing is an excellent way to quiet squeaky wheels and take emotion and opinion out of the decisions.

By early on, I mean during the information architecture (IA) stage. I’ve worked on many websites with thousands of pages and dozens of templates. When you are investing weeks of work in the IA you need to know you’re on the right track before starting to design and code (when corrections are more expensive),. And you need those stakeholders to have confidence.

Conduct usability tests on paper prototypes or online with wireframes uploaded to InVision (or similar prototyping tool), and get direct feedback on the structure and organization of the content.

Benefits of testing while planning the user experience:
  • Inexpensive and easy – While it can be time consuming to create all the page variants you need, it is more cost effective than design comps or a coded site.
  • Findings were fed directly into the sitemap and wireframes so we were that much stronger heading into the next phases
  • Recommendations were backed by research, enabling the client (and the many voices it represented) to get on board and keep the project moving forward.

3. Gain customer support and fine-tune the user experience

When your site is basically code-ready and most of the content is in, it’s time to give a sneak peek to your audience. The goal here is to cross your t’s and dot your i’s before launch.

The staged version of the site doesn’t need to be 100% complete – only the pages that concern your task scenarios. That being said, I recommend you build out the paths you think people may incorrectly take, as well as the full information architecture, even if pages are left blank.

At this late stage there shouldn’t be major usability issues if the team has done their jobs. And this ideally isn’t the first time you are putting the site in front of your audience, in some capacity. The types of issues that are most likely to come up are around content – and fortunately those are easy to fix.

Benefits of usability tests on a staged website:
  • Trust and credibility – Inviting feedback from customers shows you value their opinion and are listening. Their participation will make them feel more invested and supportive of your organization.
  • More sets of eyes joining the bug-hunt never hurts!

4. Check out the competition

Why not run testers through the same set of task on your site and 2 or 3 of your competitors? You all have the same top tasks and you are all likely executing a little bit differently. Which way works best? Let your audience answer that for you.

Testing a few more sites increases the scope of the project a bit. The test sessions will be longer and you’ll have more results to go through, but the value of the insights will be worth the time.

Benefits of testing competitor sites:
  • Reduce risk – Find out what features and content are wanted and not wanted before you build
  • Discover the ways customers want to interact with your content, and what approaches are most successful and satisfying
  • Get direct feedback on how you compare

5. Build a business case for a redesign

Sometimes in organizations, a department – often marketing or customer service – believes their site is not serving customers, but they are unable to convince the folks at C-level. They aren’t getting the attention or budget they need.

Usability testing can provide you with the evidence to create a business case for redesign. And hopefully the management team will get on board.

Benefits of testing on a flawed site with perceived issues:
  • Demonstrate a forward-thinking evidence-based approach
  • If you can get 1 or 2 executives to observe some of the tests, you’ll create champions who’ll fight from the inside for you
  • If you’re successful, the findings are valuable for the project team on the redesign. They are a checklist for user behaviours, and ensure current issues will be corrected

6. Win business

This one applies to agencies and it’s a smart tactic if you are willing to make a bit of investment. When responding to a Request for Proposal (RFP) for website redesign, conduct usability tests on the prospect’s current site. Given the usual tight timelines of RFPs, remote online testing (I like usertesting.com) is a perfect choice.

Benefits of testing to win business:
  • It’s a unique approach that differentiates you from competitors
  • It shows a willingness to invest for their business
  • It’s an opportunity to demonstrate your expertise and critical thinking
  • Test findings will provide a deeper understanding of their business and strengthen the rest of your RFP response and pitch presentation

Always be testing

I am sure there are many other reasons to conduct usability tests – these are ones I have encountered most often.

The bottom line?

It doesn’t matter where in your website’s life cycle you are. Usability testing will reconnect your team with your customers and result in a more performant, satisfying user experience.

Usability testing always yields positive results. If you’ve never tried it, contact me to find out more.


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