At Community Research we are increasingly being asked by clients to help them to evaluate their websites as part of a process of re-design. Gathering feedback from current users and the wider target audience is vital if you want to make improvements that will work. There are a number of methods that can be used and we wanted to share them with you.

Focus groups

Focus groups are an ideal environment in which to explore desired content and functionality. Stimulus material can include the client site, known competitor or peer sites and sites suggested by respondents as having useful content or features. The animated nature of a group discussion is ideal for exploring all views and for sparking initial ideas.

One-to-one sessions

Usability, however, can only be properly explored in structured, one-to-one sessions with respondents who have not previously used the version of the site being tested. Once someone has used a site for a while, they learn to work around any difficulties, and often cannot fully recall these afterwards. Observing the first time someone attempts to carry out a task on a site is critical to assessing its usability. A typical qualitative usability has five stages as follows:

  1. Overall expectations – “What would you expect [client site] to be like?”
  2. Task expectations -– “Imagine you have to find information about x, talk me through the steps you’d expect to take.”
  3. Observed task, respondent asked to think aloud, moderator takes notes to probe afterwards.
  4. Feedback on task – Unprompted first, then experience vs. expectation, then questions prompted by notes (e.g. looked lost.)
  5. Summing-up – what changes should we make?

Usability testing

If you want to take things a step further then you can consider a usability lab, which combines a one-to-one interview session with the addition of video being taken to capture what happened on screen during the session and the respondent’s voice and face (via webcam). This allows us to create a film from each interview that can be shared with designers to illustrate key issues and difficulties.

Tests of this kind can also now be undertaken at a quantitative scale, which can be helpful if you want to segment usability by age or other key factors. The software available allows us to integrate a straightforward online questionnaire with more complex online tasks. The tasks are automatically subject to on-screen recording. So the process might be as follows:

  1. An online questionnaire will initially gather some background about the user, their profile characteristics and their use of the internet (as well as the client website).
  2. A number of tests will then be set for the participant to undertake. These might include, for example, finding some specific information; paying a bill; buying something. Several tasks can be set, and the allocation and order of the tasks can be randomised across the sample.
  3. Task ‘success’ can be defined either by whether or not a participant reaches a certain URL, or by asking them a validation question after they complete the task.
  4. After each task the respondent can be asked to rate how easy or difficult they found the process and to explain any difficulties they may have experienced.
  5. After completion of all tasks the participant can be asked to provide overall ratings about the site’s usability, based on their entire experience.

We have found a combination of these methods provides some extremely useful and powerful findings for clients looking to improve the effectiveness of their website firmly from a user perspective. By undertaking tasks at this quantitative level it’s easy to calculate the average time taken to complete tasks and the number of clicks it takes to reach the desired destination. Common ‘clickpaths’ or routes through the tasks can be mapped and unusual or more deviant paths can also be checked so you can easily see where and how some users are having problems.

If you want to know more, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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