Friday, September 11, 2009

Usability labs: a way to really understand your online customers!

Hi, I am a Web user. Called me stupidImagine the scene. You have what you think is a very simple. But when you look at the poor results you get from your favourite Web Analytics, it leaves you scratching your head and wondering: “How can our online customers failed to use it properly? Are our website users stupid?”

“I am a web user, call me stupid!”
Well, there are probably few of your users who may be stupid like in everywhere – but no, online users (i.e your customers) are not stupid! It is just that too often, we get it wrong!

Yes us, you know the super Web experts (web designers, online marketers, Web Analytics ninjas).Too often, we forgot one important fact: we are NOT our customers. We are not our Web users. The problem comes from the fact that our perspective is biased. We know all about our websites, their functionalities & tools. We designed these, we know their purpose, and how these are supposed to be used.

Our customers don’t. They have a radically different perspective and it is a very difficult exercise to put yourself in their shoes. For me, we should never forget a golden rule when trying to interpret the results of any online page or tool: "Never assume that other people surf they way we do"

“If users are not stupid then data must be wrong”
Let me share a personal experience. A while ago, we started a new major redesign of our website. In that context, we did some measurements to better understand how users navigated from our homepage to the product sections. One way was via a product overview page – that was supposed to help our customers choose a specific model and drive them to corresponding model section.

Marketing didn’t expect the results we got. The page was not performing well. The results were so surprising that first reaction was to question the data (“yeah – let’s blame the data”). But data were proven to be correct. So how was that possible? After all, the page was darn simple to use. At least that what we though. The answer came few months later…

Usability labs to the rescue!
Users under close observation during a usability labAs the new site design was in advanced stage, a usability lab was done to test the new layout. The great thing with usability labs is that not only users are filmed but they are also interviewed: they explain what they think about the page, how they understand it and what they expect from the page to do... It provides qualitative insights (hurray!).

The overview page was part of the content that remained unchanged – still it was tested and we finally got our answer. We actually saw it with our own eyes: users were definitely struggling with the page. While they entered the page with the right intent (i.e. get an overview of the full product range), they were puzzled by the way it was presented and how it behaved. They basically expected something else, they got confused and mostly frustrated in the end.
And what was a mystery for us suddenly became so obvious. Yes, they were absolutely right (customers are always right anyway :-))! How did we manage to not figure it before? Because we are not our customers.

Qualitative is a must-have because can it bring some lights on the numbers and the “why” that is missing. Without, one can spend weeks trying to figure out the reasons (and never find these).

D.I.Y. Usability labs
Usability labs are one way to get qualitative data. Sure, usability labs have some flaws and limitations but the great thing is that you can really see what people do with your site and understand what's in their mind.

“But a usability labs is hard to set-up, requires an expert company and damned expensive” you might say. It is true that usability labs are often used for major redesign or critical projects. These are often handled by expert companies that work for a price. Not something most of us can afford too often.

However for smaller projects, you don’t especially need the “big artillery”. So why not doing it yourself? It is not that hard to set-up your own usability lab. One laptop with a video camera & recording software, a moderator (ask your beloved web agency for help), a quiet place to do the tests and some incentives for the testers (like free Belgian chocolates or…beers! ;-)) and that’s it. It shouldn't cost you more than 1,000 or 2,000 EUR max. Of course, it may not have the rigorous & scientific approach that you get from an expert company nor the big powerpoint/100-page report but what you can learn can be very valuable.
The 5 things you need to run your own usability lab
Small details can turn a project into a failure. Doing light usability labs can help you uncover these and avoid painful results. Again, I am talking about experience here. For a recent project, we did a small usability lab with the help of our Web agency, all at a low cost. The feedback was not only very interesting but more important it helped us to discover a serious usability issue caused by a little detail. Project was a bit delayed in order to fix the issue but without this finding, we would have put live a project that would certainly have failed to achieve its goal.

Get qualitative insights!
All in all, the important points of this post are:
  • You are not your customer - never assume they surf the way you do.
  • Get a better understanding of your customer: complement your data with qualitative insights
  • Small usability labs can be done for a cheap price and still get you valuable insights that can make a real difference, from failure to success.
  • For bigger projects/major redesign, look for real professionals. It has a cost but often worth it.
And you, have you ever done usability labs? What do you think about these? Like or dislike? Don not hesitate to share your own experience and views on that topic.

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  1. Interesting post. One can not do too much usability. However, managers should factor in the fact that there is a lot of "noise" on a Web site, and that many people who come to the site will never convert to anything.

  2. Hi Jacques,

    Thanks for commenting. I agree that usability labs is not something you can do for every single change. But it is one of the many tools available in the Web Analytics toolbox.

    Companies should do these more often as it is a good reality check (how what customers really think and how they really use websites). It is too easy to loose contact with "reality" - forgetting that we are not our customers. Not matter how hard we try :-)



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