Usability Toolkit

Aside from the classic usability tests, you can call upon quite a number of usability tools to test your site's usability. Of course, you don't have to use every single one. Here are 24 usability tools.

Affinity Diagrams

Affinity diagramming is a categorization method where users sort various concepts into categories.

This method is used by a team to organize a large amount of data according to the natural relationships between the items. Basically, you write each concept on a card and users move the cards to groups based on how they feel the concept belongs with other concepts.

Here's how it works:

  1. Form a team: Gather a team of five or six open-minded people;
  2. Describe the issues: Compose a broad and neutral statement about what you're trying to accomplish;
  3. Create idea cards: Brainstorm a list of concepts, then record each concept on a separate blank card;
  4. Sort the cards into groups: No one speaks during this process to make sure that no one influences someone else's decision;
  5. Create header cards: Create header cards for each group. These header cards should concisely describe what each group represents. Subheader cards can also be used; and
  6. Draw the affinity diagram: Draw lines connecting the headers, subheaders, and groups. Connect related groups with lines. The result looks a lot like a typical organization chart.

Alternative Browsers

This may sound obvious, but a lot of people still fail to ensure their Web site displays properly on all the popular browsers.

These include (in alphabetical order):

  • Chrome;
  • Firefox;
  • Internet Explorer;
  • Opera; and
  • Safari.

Ask Questions

Testing your users by asking questions simply takes thinking aloud one step further.

Instead of waiting for users to tell you their thoughts, you prompt them by asking direct questions. Their ability, or inability, to answer your questions can help you spot problems with your Web site.

Blind Voting

On occasions your usability team may not all agree on a particular issue. You can use blind voting to vote on the issue without a team member influencing someone else's vote.

Blind voting is when everyone participating in a voting session cannot view the votes of other participants, until all votes have been cast.

Card Sorting

Card sorting is a categorization method where users sort cards depicting various concepts into categories.

Here's how it works:

  1. Write down each concept or item on a separate blank card; and
  2. Ask your user to divide the cards up into groups that they best see fit.

This technique is best used in the early stages of development. For example, you might want to determine how users would group various site navigation links.

Cognitive Walkthroughs

Cognitive walkthrough is a review technique where you construct task scenarios from a specification and get a user to role play the part of walking through the task.

Here's how it works:

The user act as if the site was real and works through the tasks. You scrutinize each step the user takes. If the user finds they can't complete a task, it would indicate that something is missing from your site's interface.

On the other hand, if the user has to take a long winding path - such as too many clicks - through the task sequence, it indicates that your site's interface needs a new function to simplify the task.

Consistency Inspections

Use consistency inspections to ensure consistency across multiple sites.

For example, if you add a sub-site to your main Web site, conduct a consistency inspection to make sure the sub-site's primary navigation system is consistent with that of your main site.

Make sure all site functions operate consistently in all your Web sites.

You should take every opportunity to see exactly how your site is used in the real world. By observing users in the field, you can determine your users' usability requirements.

For example, you may find that most of your users like to print out a copy of your articles to read off-line. As such you should consider producing a printer-friendly version of your articles. A usability study in your office may never reveal this useful information.

Focus Groups and Interviews

Focus groups and interviews are formally organized meetings which give you an opportunity to interact directly with users, and question them on their experiences, opinions and preferences with your concept and Web site.

Here's how it works:

  1. Create a list of questions about your concept or Web site;
  2. Ask your group of users to answer these questions; and
  3. Discuss the issues raised by your each user's answers.

Heuristic Evaluation

Heuristic evaluation is where a group of usability experts scrutinize your Web site and evaluate each element of the site against a list of commonly accepted principles.

The experts should scrutinize and evaluate each element of your site on their own. They then compare their findings.

Industry Standards Inspections

Standards inspections ensure compliance with industry standards and regulations.

For example, much of the information on the Web is not accessible to people with disabilities because of poor design. Web sites should be designed better, so that people with disabilities can use accessibility tools - screen readers, screen magnifiers, and voice input systems - to help them navigate the Web.

Journaled Sessions

Journaled sessions are where users conduct usability tests in remote locations.

The test subjects' actions are recorded when they conduct the assigned tasks. Upon completion of the tests, the users return the data for you to evaluate. Journaled sessions allow users to take usability tests virtually anywhere in the world.

Although journaled sessions are used in the development of computer software, there is little information or research about this method being used in the development of Web sites. If you have any experience of using this method of usability testing, let me know.

Market Research Data

To build a great Web site, you must understand the needs of your users. There is a lot of market research data on Web user demographics, habits and preferences. Use this information to assist you in the design of your concept and Web site.

Opinion Polls

Opinion polls are a sample of user or public opinion to acquire information. They can be conducted in person, by phone, by mail, or on a Web site.

Opinion polls conducted on the Web can be pretty cheap. They can also gather opinions from a large group of people in a very short space of time.

Performance Measurement

Performance measurements are targeted at determining quantitative data.

For example:

  • How does the position of the "Order" button influence your customer conversion rate?; and
  • How long does it take a new user to sign up to your service?

During the design of your site, you can set performance goals.

For example, "90% of our new users shall be able to sign up to our service in under 5 minutes."

Performance commitments can be used as powerful unique selling proposition to new customers.

For example, Datek Online - an Internet stocks trading service - promise that if your marketable online orders are not executed within 60 seconds, the commission on the trade is waived. What a powerful unique selling proposition!

Pluralistic Walkthroughs

Pluralistic walkthroughs are when groups of users, developers, and usability experts walk through a task scenario.

During the walkthrough, everyone discusses and evaluates each element of interaction. This has the advantage of providing a diverse range of skills and perspectives to bear on usability problems and increasing the probablility of discovering problems sooner.

Proofreader

A proofreader will uncover and correct your Web site's spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. Not only that, but they will also be able to correct the 'tone' of your site.

At first glance, incorrect or poor spelling, grammar and punctuation may not be an obvious cause of usability problems. But if a link is spelled incorrectly, it could be rendered useless.

A site with lots of spelling, grammar and punctuation errors will make your company look unprofessional.

Prototyping

A prototype is a partially completed mockup of your final Web site. Prototyping allows you to test certain parts of the final Web site, especially when it is incomplete.

Prototyping is split into two forms:

Vertical prototyping
Vertical prototyping involves testing the exact functionality of a small section of your site; For example, you could test that your shopping cart works, without being able to add everything in your online store into the cart.


Horizontal prototyping
Horizontal prototyping means testing a broad spectrum of your site's features, without each feature having to work properly; Horizontal prototyping is often used for user preference testing of site navigation, when the actual navigation system links haven't been implemented yet. This allows evaluation of the navigation system design, placement and accessiblity.

Public Kiosk

Public kiosks may not seem like an obvious usability tool. However, there are plenty of places where you can set up a public kiosk to test public reaction to your Web site, without needing to pay the users.

Places where you can set up a public kiosk include:

  • Trade shows;
  • Shopping malls;
  • Train stations;
  • Conventions; and
  • Supermarkets.

Questionnaires

Questionnaires are an inexpensive way of gathering a great deal of information from a large number of users. Most of the cost involved is in designing (or printing, if it's offline) the questionnaire.

Server Log File Analysis

Server log files are records of your site's activity. The log file data can offer you some valuable insights into how your users are using your Web site.

Your log files could reveal:

  • that some Web pages that are never visited; further investigation could reveal that links leading to those pages are broken;
  • where in the secure ordering process do customers abandon the sale; modification of the offending page(s) could improve the checkout abandon rate; and
  • that one section of your site is much more popular than the rest; with this information, you may decide to concentrate and expand that section.

There are plenty of log file analysis and reporting tools that can help you make sense of the data available in your log files.

Surveys

Surveys are similar to interviews with users, except they are not formally scheduled and organized like focus groups.

However, unannounced face-to-face surveys might not prove popular. How often do you try and avoid people in malls who approach you to ask you questions? The lengths people go to to avoid talking to these people demonstrates that tact is paramount.

Thinking Aloud

Thinking aloud is where users speak out their thoughts, feelings, and opinions while they are performing an assigned task. Thinking aloud helps you understand how users use your Web site and what considerations users keep in mind when using it. Only if you can read minds, can you ignore this usability tool!

Variable Internet Connection Speeds

When conducting usability tests, it is vitally important that you replicate the environment to match how your site is used in the real world by your 'average user.'

Your home page may take under a second to download on your DSL office connection, but your users may have to wait ten to fifteen seconds because they connect at 56kbps (kilobits per second) or less.

Since most unqualified users (those who are not certain your site has exactly what they need) will give up on a Web page if it takes eight seconds or longer to download, you may be losing a large percentage of your users without realizing it.

Some Web sites are popular with busy executives who are often on the road. They may be connecting to your Web site using a 14.4kbps mobile Internet connection or worse! So if this is true with your site, test your site on a 14.4kbps connection.

It's vitally important that you conduct usability tests on Internet connection speeds that match those of your users.