Usability testing originated in the 80’s when computer companies like Intuit and Xerox started to take an interest in human-computer interaction. They would record people (“users”) interacting with their products and take notes on their emotions, how much the were able to recall, how many mistakes they made, etc. Afterwards, developers would hurriedly make changes to the user interface before the next tester had their turn. This formed the basis for usability as we know it today, including usability with regards to website design.

Only thorough testing can determine whether a website has maximized its potential as a usable design. The remote testing services that are cropping up streamline the process so that it is more affordable to do the testing. To bring users in for a local test can cost thousands of dollars, depending how many testers you include.

But how do you know when a design is usable without testing? Is a good-looking design automatically a usable design?

There is no simple answer to that question, but many sites that are eye-catching are not usable. There are, however, some guidelines you can follow that will go a long way to prevent confusion. They should be implemented in the planning stages:

  • Grid systems like to help structure your website with proper spacing.
  • Map out the elements on your site using ‘wireframe’ or ‘graybox’ layouts.
  • Draw up flow charts documenting the user processes (i.e. registration, login, upload a new video).

These techniques have been around for longer than websites. They stuck because they are proven techniques. Not to mention, planning ahead generally improves your design aesthetically.

Have you taken every preventative measure? Followed all the guidelines to ensure that your site is usable? There still may be room for improvement. Despite widespread belief, usability should be included in the planning and pre-design process that ensues. This will save money, time, and severe headaches.

As we’ve already discussed, there are two types of usability testing: local and remote. In some cases we still conduct local user testing, but it is becoming less common. Local testing is like what the computer companies were first doing back in the 80s. Test and adjust one user at a time. If you are on a budget and looking for a simple yet effective usability test, get your friends and relatives to do the testing for you.

Remote testing, on the other hand, is a new innovation that allows web designers to analyze their designs with regard to usability for large groups at a fraction of the cost of local testing. Some sites have feedback buttons that allow users to volunteer their take on the website, and there are other sites that let us post a project and have selected testers analyze it. They give us qualitative feedback, which can be very useful because the suggestions are more actionable when they are written down with specifics.

The most valuable feedback that I believe you can get from remote testing is the information that you can read from what I like to call “fly on the wall” overlays. These are the heat maps and click maps that I mentioned before. While all forms of usability testing have benefits, only the click maps record how users actually use the website. Little does the user know that the motions of their mouse are being tracked invisibly (I mean, who really reads the privacy policy on websites?). You can see the user’s gestures and analyze data such as how long it takes to complete a specific action, load a page, or where users get stuck. Again, the user does this in the comfort of his own home without any knowledge of the testing and so they provide real-time data.

Should we, as designers, be paying more attention to usability trends? The answer is a resounding Yes. Analyzing the user experience allows us to create sites that are more effective and that create a better (and quicker) return on a user’s visit. No matter how much reading we do, we will never fully comprehend our users, but with proper testing we are able to take a little peek into their complex minds and habits of our users. Therefore the User Experience can not be overrated, as we will always find new innovations in handling it and getting into those minds.

  • Hi James. This is an interesting article but I’d like to pick on 3 of the points you make.

    The first is in the opening paragraph:

    “How do you get them to interact with your website the way you want them to?”

    This is back to front thinking. If you care about the user experience, the way you want your users to interact with your site is the way that they want to interact with it. You then reap the benefits of giving them what they want.

    The next is your comment about usability testing being the thing that happens just before launch. Often this is too late. It’s best to find out early on that the thing you’ve spent oodles of money developing has a fundamental flaw in it. it makes it a little cheaper to fix.

    Lastly is the assertion that ‘Local testing’ as you call it is in decline. What is this based on? Do you have anything to back this up?

    It’s true that there are a lot of tools out there to help people get feedback from users. I’ve tried a lot of them, including some very expensive ones and none of them compare to sitting in a room with someone and watching them trying to use a website. The people who are using these tools are the people who didn’t do usability testing in the first place.

  • James Costa

    Hey David!

    Thanks for the awesome comment. I really appreciate your going through it and making comments. I’m always up for improving.

    I couldn’t agree with you or debate with you on any of those points as you’re bang-on! With my first point I was merely talking about getting them to your product or service, or giving them the information they require in the most efficient manner. With my second, I can see exactly what you’re saying – getting them in on the prototyping and planning stages can save you loads of time.

    Only with the third is there some disagreement on my part. Everyone has their own opinion on what they like better and what produces more actionable results – I personally enjoy remote testing because it is less expensive for my clients, and it gives testers the comfort of their own homes to test out the websites/prototypes so that there is no biased information being given. I myself would have a hell of a hard time coming into someone’s office building, sitting down and testing their site only to come up with negative responses – I would likely curve the responses to be a little nicer as to avoid any backlash I feel I might get. I guess I would be a horrible tester, then. 😉

    In my opinion I find having focus groups and having users in during the planning stages is more useful with regards to local testing, and later on remote testing (in my opinion) provides me with the results I would need to make changes to the website.

    Thanks again for your great insight into user experience! It’s great to have a consultant have their say on here. 🙂

  • Dave

    Hi David,

    Do you recommend any sites or services for remote testing?

  • Hi James,

    Yes it’s often really valuable to keep people in their natural environment. But in this case I’d just go round to their homes. I’d use remote testing when I really to test with people who I couldn’t reach otherwise.

    I can’t agree about focus groups though. I’m not a big fan I’m afraid. In the planning stages I’d investigate users and their environment, rather than gather a load of stangers in a room and ask them to talk about themselves.

  • James Costa

    @ Dave: There are tons of ones here for your perusal:

    @ David: At least we’re in a little bit of agreement there! Not many usability experts I know will go out and do that, so major kudos to yourself.

    I see what you’re saying about focus groups (5-10 people) – I use them mainly for talking about features and how people would like to see them implemented, etc. I would sooner send out a survey to find out demographic information and smaller questions.


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  • James,

    Good article. I liked that you addressed some of the common pain points when it comes to introducing UX to clients/newcomers.

    Like David Hamill, I think your assertion: “Usability testing comes in here: after the construction, but before the launch.” is a flawed one. There is a lot that can be done before and during the “construction” of a website/application that leads to a more refined product that’s better in line with what users want, and how they want it.

    The way to get this sooner is with agile development/prototyping. Sooner still would be something like a mental modeling process.

    Lastly, I don’t think your article answers the question: “Is the UX overrated?”

    But hey, the article covers a lot of ground in a short span. Thanks for the read.

    Nice site you’ve got here, James!

  • James Costa

    @ Andrew: Thanks for the comment, mate! I completely agree with you and David – there is a lot to be learned from users even before the design process begins. Yes, I managed to change the question to whether or not we as web development professionals should be concerned about it with a resounding yes.

    To answer, if it wasn’t clear enough in the article, it is definitely underrated. In previous versions of the article I addressed that a little more bluntly, but I can see what you’re saying!

    Definitely appreciate the comment about the site! It’s quite an honor from someone I look up to as a designer as well. 🙂

  • Ben

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    I think a balance between user experience, information, design and technology is crucial. To define the quality of a page using one of these points is not possible, i think. Even these are just basics. The quality of the content and thoroughness of the author for his readers plays a major role. Yes, I think user experience is overrated. A healthy and harmonious mix of everything is crucial.

  • Thank you for the interesting article James. We typically conduct local UX testing. Occasionally clients fall into the trap of altering the design and features to fit their personal whims instead of what users will want. Before we begin wireframing we discuss their business goals and analyze what role the site will play within their marketing plan. However, some clients lose sight of these goals and soon revert to creating a site for themselves instead of the user… often recreating the crappy old site we are trying to replace and improve. Frustrating. Thanks again.

  • Hi James. Thanks for the article, interesting read.

    I agree with David on his points, and would also like to add one more thing about focus groups. You said you use them mainly “for talking about features and how people would like to see them implemented, etc.”

    I don’t think focus groups are going to get you that information. Users aren’t UX designers – they will not be able to tell you what features they want or how they want them implemented. They can, however, tell you what their needs are and where they currently get stuck. It is our role as UX designers to figure out the implementation to meet those needs.


  • James Costa

    Hey Rian!

    Thanks for the comment! In focus groups I’ve worked with, I’ve asked users of the site and people within clients’ niche about what they want the site to do. Of course, how it is implemented is the designer and usability expert’s job, but I’ve found some very interesting ideas come out of these focus groups. Most of the time these features are being reimplemented, so they will be able to tell you where they get stuck, etc, so you can map out a different process of function.

    This is obviously from my personal experience in running and being a part of these focus groups, and I know each one (including what you get out of them) is different.


  • “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

    Henry Ford

  • Nice read! Thanks!

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  • Hi James. As a usability specialist, I enjoyed reading your article and am glad David commented as his comments reflect certainly my experience and those of the usability specialists whom I know. I don’t think you can beat sitting in a persons home, seeing their environment, interacting with them in person and engaging with them on a personal level which would be more difficult to achieve over an internet connection. I too dislike focus groups and am happy to leave these to marketing departments. It is too easy for one person with a big opinion to influence everyone else. I find people are much more open and honest in a one-to-one session. These are better suited to usability and ux discussions imho.

  • User experience is never overrated and i think an eye tracking method with a heat map overlay is the best way to test your website. But the eye tracking method is a single user experience so it is hard to get a good representation of different users and their cultures and habits. A good way to measure this is to change between designs and use analytics on your website to see when you get more people on a certain page or part.

    It is impossible to ask people what they want because they will just answer “i want info about…” or “i want to buy…” etc. You as Usability expert are the one who must create a good flow for the user to get him to the point to get that info or to get him to buy that product.

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