How to usability test your site for free

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February 19, 2016
How to usability test your site for free.
Usability testing is sometimes one of those things that designers conveniently ‘forget’ about. Why? Well do a search for it. Usability testing, as it is generally practiced, costs money. There are interviews to perform, a variety of tests to create for each and every project, services to pay for… and what if your client’s in another country? Or what if they’re a small business with a small budget, or a brand-new startup? What if the only reason you learned web design in the first place was to build your own site? Check your wallet. Can you pay for classic usability testing? [pullquote]This, is usability testing for the rest of us[/pullquote] It’s not uncommon for advice written about usability testing to assume that you’re working on a “big project” for a client that can afford the fancy stuff. Even the articles that talk about testing on a budget will often refer you to paid services. Simply put, there are times when any kind of paid service, on top of every other expense, is not an option. This, is usability testing for the rest of us…

Start with friends

Paul Boag wrote this on the subject:
Get 5 or 6 random people to sit in front of a computer, look at your site and ask them to complete a series of tasks while talking about them.
Well, that‘s where you‘d start. I‘d add a few extra recommendations:
  1. Grab the least-technically savvy people you know. You know, the ones who feel uncomfortable with a mouse. The ones who beg you for help every time they see a dialog box asking them if they want to save their file. If they can use your site, you’re set.
  2. If possible, test on mobile devices too. Don’t test the same user on one platform, then another. They’ll have had time to get used to your site’s basic structure. Get different users to test your site on different devices.
  3. Remember that observing a phenomenon can alter the outcome. In this case, people who know they’re being watched as they interact with a site may behave differently than they would normally. But hey, slightly skewed data is better than no data at all.

Get your role-play on

No robes and wizard hats here, unless you feel like it (actually, I do want a wizard hat) but you have to bring your ‘A’ game. It can be hard to see your project with fresh eyes. You built it. You know it inside and out. How do you pretend not to know it? It’s not enough to say, “Okay, I’m just going to get into character as Joe Averagedude and we’ll do this thing!” That’s not how it works. Even if you’re really good at playing pretend, you’re still you. My advice? Adopt a persona and change the browsing conditions. Try speed-browsing your site out in the sunlight on your phone. Grab a free screen reader, put on a blindfold, and try to reach your own calls to action as a blind person might. Lazily scroll through your site on a tablet in your living room, with the TV blaring. Use an older browser, on desktop or mobile, as a worst case scenario. Just try to simulate the conditions under which different users will be browsing your site. You might have to leave your office to do it. You might have to tie one hand behind your back. Whatever it takes, do it. Stop thinking like you.

Look for the free tools

There aren’t many. Proper user tracking and testing takes time and money, there are no two ways about that. Two companies, however, are offering quite a bit of good stuff for free. Well, that’s free as in ‘Google gets more information about you and your website’s users’, and ‘Optimizely gets a chance to upsell you on its pro plan’. If you can live with that, read on. Now when I say “Google”, I am of course talking about Google Analytics. If nothing else, you can set up ‘goals’ for your website’s users. That is, you can define specific actions you’d like them to take — clicking a link, filling out a form — and the analytics platform will keep track of just how many of your users are taking that action. It won’t tell you much really, but it can help to identify the existence of any major issues. There’s more that the platform can do, of course, but that should get you started. Optimizely is a different beast. It comes with a lot of free tools designed to not only collect data, but give it as much context as possible. The free plan has its limits, but it will be more than enough to start you on your way. As a bonus, it integrates with Google Analytics. All other free services that I’ve found so far are so limited as to be almost unusable in the long term. Well, there’s Five Second Test, but all that gets you is usability tests performed on fellow designers. The better ones might be able to spot some of your problems; but user testing is likely more effective when performed on users in your target demographic.

Conclusion

Free usability testing tools are not plentiful, but don’t let that stop you. All you really need are some willing friends, family, and acquaintances, and the willingness to get creative about testing your site. Don’t just check to see if it looks okay in all the browsers, test that thing ‘til it breaks, then start all over again. And don’t worry if not all of the tests go as planned. There’s always the next iteration. Featured image, project review image via Shutterstock.

Ezequiel Bruni

Ezequiel Bruni is a web/UX designer, blogger, and aspiring photographer living in Mexico. When he’s not up to his finely-chiselled ears in wire-frames and front-end code, or ranting about the same, he indulges in beer, pizza, fantasy novels, and stand-up comedy.

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