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Last updated Mar 1, 2004.
User testing has also been called usability testing, among other names. At its simplest, the test involves the user sitting in front of the computer to try to complete a set of assigned tasks while being timed or given a time limit. The person giving the test sits near the user and takes notes of the steps taken, the time it takes to complete the task, the number of clicks, and the comments he makes. The end result is to determine what areas need refining.
Encouraging the user to think out loud is a great tool in the process of understanding where the roadblocks are within the site. If a user asks, "Will clicking on 'credit card' display transactions or provide information about the bank's credit cards?" it is an indication that 'credit card' is ambiguous. The fix is not simply changing the name 'credit card' to something else. It may require creating a top-level hierarchy for members and another for information or new users.
Obviously, the more testers who participate in the test, the better the results. If one user out of 20 has a problem with an element, it may not be an issue that needs addressing. User testing provides useful data for analyzing and improving the Web site. A second round of user testing can demonstrate whether there is an improvement over the previous iteration of the design.
Believe it or not, there's a process called, "Discount Usability," which is usability testing on the cheap. Jakob Nielsen believes that conducting a usability test with five users will find 80% of the problems. Whether or not that's true, conducting a test with one person is better than none at all.
To complete cheap usability testing, you can sit down with the user and take notes. Look to the user to do three things: complete specific tasks, talk about the vocabulary (asking the user what he expects to find under certain items before going there), and commenting on the overall layout and concept. Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think! has more examples of how to go about usability testing.