The Value of Web Site Usability Evaluations

I am sometimes asked for a sample of one of my web site usability reports. Each time I explain why I don’t offer them.

The main reason why I don’t provide samples is that my work is, and always has been, proprietary. When I was new to consulting, I did send out a few sample reports, with all identifying information removed to hide the client. What I learned was that rather than hiring me, the companies who saw my reports used them in-house by letting their own people follow what I did.

However, since day one of providing audits, I routinely change them. I have templates, custom templates and bits and pieces of test cases that can be combined with other audit projects based on the type of web site. In addition, I do different reviews for local businesses.

I also perform Internet software application functional QA testing by adapting QA practices to a virtual way of testing that is more affordable for many companies. There are faint few in the usability testing industry who are trained in usability, search engine marketing and software testing, but I am. This is my approach to the work and I’ve learned to guard it.

Push Back

Despite how much I rely on site audits, I’m well aware that some companies don’t put much stock in them. In fact, many gurus from the usability industry don’t like them at all. They have a point.

If you hire 5 usability companies to perform a site audit or review, you will most likely receive 5 different types of reports and a wild variety of feedback. Some reports are based on metrics, data gathering and graphs. Others are cognitive walkthroughs with heuristic evaluations. With thousands of usability/UX heuristics available, most reports are selective about what areas they will cover. The report may only look at information architecture and navigation, for example. You’d be lucky to get accessibility heuristics thrown in there.

Who can blame a company for not ordering something that may not include what they want, or present it in a way they will understand? Some companies live and die by metrics and graphics, while others don’t understand what any of that means and prefer down to earth feedback in language they understand.

Pros for Usability Evaluations

Simply put, if you had a web site built and it is not performing, who do you turn to? You might discuss your concerns with your web designer. However, unless your web design is multi-skilled, they may not know what’s missing. Furthermore, they are too close to the project and not able to be objective.

The leading culprit for failed web sites is not having any requirements gathered before it is built. A full usability audit can illustrate this clearly by uncovering areas of user confusion, poor momentum, clumsy task layouts, and much more. Requirements can include making sure the site renders on mobile devices and used by anyone requiring assistive technology to use computers. A usability evaluation can tell whether or not it was built for your target market, or if the site includes potential users who arrive via word of mouth or social networking.

Conversions are the big deal. Web site owners are much more savvy today. They know it’s no longer about how many links and how much traffic comes to their web site. If marketing doesn’t produce traffic, that’s one problem. When traffic comes and goes without completing key tasks, this is a huge usability issue that marketing will not solve.

Ask For Particulars

When seeking a usability review, audit or evaluation, get specifics. Ask how many pages the report will be and the format it comes in, such as a Word document, PDF or spreadsheet. For functional testing, do you want to see test cases? These are based on application requirements and offer a systematic, step by step assessment of the application. Are you asked for target market analysis, site requirements and business goals for a full usability and seo audit? Ask if the company does requirements gathering for you. This helps set the usability company apart because it illustrates they understand that audits are more useful when based on your own set of requirements.

A quality report is more than a “Can you look at my website and tell me what you think” practice. I don’t do them. What I think isn’t important, especially if I’m not your target customer.

Another area you may want to look into is the ability to carry out the suggestions contained within your report. Of course, you should have ordered the type of review that offers feedback, actionable advice, enhancements and suggestions. Is it itemized for ease of use? Are critical defects noted? Is there a summary? If you don’t have someone to implement report feedback, your usability specialist can either do it for you or can find resources who can.

Not all usability and user experience reviews include search engine marketing, accessibility and functional testing. These areas are specialties and quite valuable to the long term success of a web site, especially ecommerce and online businesses. Ask about mobile device testing. There are other add-ons such as user persona creation, user testing, and SEO maintenance that some usability companies offer.

Yes, some companies charge eye popping fees for usability reviews. Rather than ask for examples or proof that reports will increase conversions, which is all confidential client information, consider the ramifications of not having any evaluation at all. Get a written quote (RFQ) that details what’s covered. Find someone willing to help you look at your web property from every angle, to be sure you are getting every possible conversion and satisfied customer.

With an even greater emphasis by search engines and social networking on user experience and behavior, a skilled usability evaluation can be a very smart investment.