Feature Article (Pub: Mon 05th May 03) Usability Testing by Tim Fidgeon

Usability testing is the practice of sitting real users down in front of a website (or a prototype of a website) and trying to identify the problems they experience in trying to use it.

There are a number of issues to consider when commissioning a usability testing session, here are 2 of the most important:

The choice of users themselves

Testing sessions' results are only as good as the subjects you select to test the site against. They should be broadly representative of your target audience, both in terms of traditional demographics (e.g. age, social class etc.) and Internet-literacy.

This last point of Internet literacy is especially important. Many sites try to cut corners by testing a site with friends or colleagues, but this misses the whole point of usability testing - it's not about what you, or people like you - think, but rather about what the site's actual target audience will think.

I've lost count of the number of web design agencies who proclaim to test their sites, but upon further questioning admit that all they really do is send a URL round the office and ask for comments - that is not proper testing!

People working in a web design agency, who go to work in trainers, drink café lattes and use the Internet for their profession could hardly be described as a representative sample of users for the majority of websites.

So, in conclusion - make sure you are testing with the right people, so the results will be relevant to your site!

Analysis of results

User testing will result in observed phenomena (such as 'this user could not find the 'checkout'), but it will not be able to explain those phenomena in isolation.

Results alone are not enough - you need to analyse them.

It is important for anybody thinking about testing their site with users to make sure that there are people with the right skills and expertise present to analyse the tests. The easiest way to find out if the agency/person you have chosen to conduct the tests is going to deliver real value is to ask about their experience and academic background.

Explaining why people do things (i.e. why couldn't users find the checkout) requires an understanding of user-psychology - a strong background in human-computer interaction, psychology or cognitive science is always desirable.

The whole point of analysing a test is to understand why people are having problems, which will then allow any re-design to properly address these problems. Any re-design conducted without such analysis runs the risk of being a waste of time, effort and money, as you never really understood the problem in the first place and, therefore, might not have solved it.


Tim Fidgeon (MSc HCI) has worked as information architect and usability consultant for a number of FTSE100 companies for 9 years leading a variety of projects, and heads the usability team at CommerceTuned.

Links - Why they matter by Perry Rich

How a site presents its links is one easiest things to get right on a website, but also one of the most important!

If a user can't find the links on your site, how are they ever going to use your site? How are they going to browse, or buy, your products and services if they can't move off of the page?! It sounds obvious, but a lot of sites fail this most fundamental of tests.

I'm not even talking about sites' navigation systems - that would be a whole separate article - but the in-page links that a site provides. The rules here are very simple:

  • Underline your links, and nothing but your links
  • Make your links a different colour to the rest of your text.

Even though these rules are laughably simple, you would be surprised how many supposedly 'professionally-designed' websites break them!

Designers often think that underlined links 'look ugly', and therefore opt for simply colouring them slightly differently in the belief that users will notice them.

Now, call me cynic if you will, but I'm not going to rely on a designer's faith to insure that users can find information on my company's products and services! Behaviour like this is a classic example of designers designing for other designers, not the end-user.

What if the end-user has less than perfect eyesight and can't tell the difference between your link and regular text colours? Do you not want anyone's money who isn't a 23 year-old art school drop out?!

That said, designers do have a appoint when they say that too much underlined text looks ugly - i.e. it is confusing to the eye. But that is no reason to not underline your links; it's just a reason to more carefully consider the design of your links.

By the 'design of your links', I mean the words that you actually use as a link. I would always recommend using the least number of information carrying words possible.

For instance:

  1. Click here for more details on our products and services
  2. Click here for more details on our products and services
  3. Click here for more details on our products and services

Of these options, I would choose Option 2, because the link tells you what it is providing access to (i.e. 'products and services').

Option 1 underlines everything, which is overkill and Option 3 underlines words that have no relevance to the actual page the user will be click through to (a particular problem with blind/partially-sighted users who use screen-reading technology to read out the link - imagine having 8 'click here' links per page - how would you ever tell the difference?!).

So, in summary - designing links is easy as long as you:

  • Underline them;
  • Make them a special colour (preferably blue, as it's the standard);
  • Use short information-carrying words/phrases.

Safe linking!


Perry Rich is Assistant SEO Specialist at CommerceTuned.

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