The profit and loss of usability

Paul Boag

We have looked a number of times before at user testing but have never really asked why it is important.

The subject of usability seems to generate a dichotomy between what we think and what do as website managers. On the one hand we know that a focus on usability is good. We need only look at companies such as Apple and its iPod to know that usability can have business benefits.

However, when it comes to putting our principles into practice we often shy away. The realities of a production environment make a focus on usability seem impossible. We either feel that timescales are too tight or budgets will not stretch to the extra expense. For one reason or another user testing gets pushed to the bottom of the agenda. It is as if the perceived losses of testing outweigh the potential profit.

But, are these assumptions true? Is user testing time-consuming and expensive?

The perceived losses of user testing

Even if we are fully committed to user centric design we often need to convince others of its benefits. The perception that user testing is time-consuming and expensive, is wide spread and to some extent with good reason.

Traditionally user testing has been a huge undertaking with many organizations still spend millions. For years it took place in expensive usability labs with two way mirrors, computer suites, and video surveillance. Large numbers of test subjects were required to provide statistically relevant data. Also, the selection of these subjects was time-consuming because each would have to conform to a specific demographic profile. Testing was expensive and took considerable time to setup.

This approach was certainly effective but prevented most companies from running sessions. Although a usability consultant, testing in a lab, with demographically selected subjects is nice, it is beyond the budgets and time frames of most organizations.

However, user testing does not need to be like that. In-fact, it can be lightweight and inexpensive. Best of all it is something you can do yourself. It may not be quite as effective, but it is certainly a lot better than no testing at all.

However, even the most lightweight approach to user testing will require some additional time and budget. Do then the benefits outweigh this cost?

The real profit of user testing

The benefits provided by user testing cannot be understated. Even the most lightweight of approaches can have a profound affect on your web presence.

The benefits of user testing include:

  • Fast issue detection
  • Increased user satisfaction
  • Reduced support costs
  • Increased efficiency

Let us address each of these in turn.

Fast issue detection

If user testing is properly implemented throughout the life cycle of your web project then the chances are you will identify potential problems faster. Regular testing will certainly find usability issues but could also pick up on technical bugs too.

If you can identify these kinds of problems early, they are much easier to fix. The further into the project the more expensive and time-consuming changes will become as more code has to be rewritten.

Increased user satisfaction

It will come as no surprise that an easy to use site increases user satisfaction. However, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider just how important that is.

Users who become frustrated with your site do not simply leave; they never return. That user is probably lost for good no matter how much you improve in site in future. What is more they are unlikely to recommend it and could even actively criticize it.

In the competitive world of the web, repeat visitors and customer recommendations are crucial to success.

Reduced support costs

Perhaps you are in the fortunate position of facing little competition, or your users have no choice but to use your site. Even if that is the case you still cannot afford to ignore usability.

If site visitors finds your site hard to use and yet cannot just walk away they are left with one option; to ask for help. Sites with poor usability will attract large numbers of support calls and complaints.

Usually, it is far more economical to user test than to continually answer the same questions in support calls.

Increased efficiency

Finally, an easy to use site can provide real monetary benefits through efficiency.

This is most easily seen if your own staff use your site. An easy to use web application allows users to complete tasks quicker and as we all know “time is money.”

To a lesser extent, this principle also applies to others using your site. If they can complete tasks quicker then they are more likely to turn to you as an efficient source. They will see a timesaving that will encourage them back.

There is no doubt that user testing can provide a real return on investment. However, these can only be realized if the cost of running test sessions can be kept to a minimum.