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What is user testing?

What’s this user testing thing all about? It sure seems to come up a lot. Let’s briefly explore what user testing is, and why companies are doing it.

User testing is a method of developing and improving a website’s design and overall user experience through careful study of real live user sessions conducted by people who could conceivably be a prospective customer of the business in question.

It manifests in different ways. For example, some user tests will be more scientific than others. Some will focus more on qualitative data and feedback from users; others will be more quantitative in nature. At the end of the day, though, the objective of user testing is, quite logically, to find guinea pigs in the actual potential customer base and have them interact with your site in an effort to ensure the site caters to their actual needs and expectations.

And even though many sites have never adopted user testing, it’s not surprising that lots do invest in it. Imagine you were a head chef at a well-known restaurant here in San Francisco — would you start serving up a brand new dish without first testing it out on at least a few close friends?

What’s useful about user testing?

1. Find out why prospects leave your website

2. Uncover potential areas of confusion

3. Shed light on bugs and faulty functionality

4. Get a fresh set of eyes on your content, message and processes

5. Get feedback from people who actually fall into your target demographic and understand how they uniquely see things

Ultimately, the answer to “why user testing” is simple. Everyone has ADHD when it comes to the Internet. Our attention span is about 4 seconds. When you test the critical elements of your site against the real-life experiences and expectations of prospective users, you uncover what turns them off and what empowers them to get sh*t done on your site quickly and effectively. You get answers to the questions, “What will keep my visitors here and inspire them to convert?” and “What aspects of our design will send visitors running for the hills?” If your site visitors translate into revenue for your business — and for most of us, that is the case — those are very important questions.

Why don’t more companies conduct user tests when developing web pages?

1. It can be expensive, both resource-wise and cost-wise (of course, it can also be tremendously inexpensive if you find the right tools).

2. Designers, developers and project managers have a vision for their site and don’t always want to “muddle” it with user feedback. CEOs certainly tend to have a vision too.

3. User testing can lead to feedback the team doesn’t want to hear. Pulling on a single thread can unravel the entire sweater… sort of thing.

I won’t list all the technologies out there, as there already exist several perfectly good articles describing the top user testing software. Businesses can conduct these tests at different levels, too — you don’t have to go down the road of hiring a professional team and investing months to test the crap out of your site from every angle. But whether you choose to employ an online usability testing tool or simply record user sessions to see how they use your site, something is better than nothing. Put energy and thought toward this early on, and your website will reflect the needs of your customer base. And that’s more “cha-ching” coming your way.