Usability testing is a good idea for any new web site. Increasing the usability of your web site is a good idea because it will increase visitor satisfaction, which in turn increases sales and user loyalty. On the business savings side, usability testing can also save you money in development, maintenance, and support costs. Unfortunately, traditional usability tests is pricey — it can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars to run a usability test.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to. Here are five ideas to get usability testing done on the cheap. The results might not be quite as good, but they won’t hurt your pocketbook nearly as much.
As always, if you have any other ideas or have experience with any of the ones we’ve listed, please let us know in the comments.
UserTesting.com is a low cost way to get a look at what goes through the minds of average web users as they interact with your web page. For
$19 $29 per user, you get a 10 20 minute video of a user talking their way through your page, as well as answers to a short, written questionnaire. There is a sample video available here.
We reviewed UserTesting.com in an August issue of the SitePoint Tribune.
2. Feedback Army and Mechanical Turk
Feedback Army is a new low-cost usability testing service that for $7 will provide answers from up to 10 people to a text-based survey about your web site. It isn’t quite as visual as UserTesting.com, and the quality of feedback might be suspect, but nonetheless could provide valuable information about how people view your web site. And it’s cheap enough that if the results are a waste of time, $7 shouldn’t put you out of business.
A similar result could likely be had via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service.
3. Silverback and Morae
Another option is to go the DIY route. Recruit some people at a local tech meetup (or a meetup dedicated to the topic your web site covers), or down at the local coffee shop to play with your site on video and give feedback. Silverback for Mac and Morae for Windows are two programs designed specifically for this type of guerilla user testing. They both simultaneously record what users are doing on screen, how they look while they’re interacting with your site (i.e., facial reaction), and what they’re saying while they do it. Morae also records and tracks things like screen clicks, when windows are resized, moved, or closed, and can prompt users to answer survey questions.
A screencast creation program like Screenflow could potentially be used for this type of testing, as well.
4. Forums and Friends
Relying on your family and friends is a good way to get initial feedback on your new web site or site redesign. But for slightly more impartial feedback, it’s not a bad idea to turn to forums for critiques. New startups often post to Hacker News for advice and SitePoint’s Forums have for a long time had an active web site review area.
5. Live Feedback
Finally, you can (and should!) always gather live feedback about how your visitors are actually interacting with your site. CrazyEgg and Click Density offer services that allow you to view visually via heatmap how users are actually using your site. Valuable usability information can be gleaned from these heatmaps, and they also allow you to do A/B testing to compare two design possibilities put into actual use.
For a more theoretical approach, try Feng-GUI or the ViewFinder addon for Firefox. Both offer artificial intelligence generated heatmaps for your web site that attempt to simulate where users will look when they first land on your page. Are they accurate? Hard to say, but certainly don’t rely solely on what they tell you.
It’s a good idea to combine two or more of the above methods to make sure you get a complete picture of how you can improve your site’s usability. Also, remember that SitePoint offers a usability kit to teach you more about the ABCs of usability.
Josh Catone joined Mashable in May 2009 and is Executive Director of Editorial Projects. Before joining Mashable, Josh was the Lead Writer at ReadWriteWeb, the Lead Blogger at SitePoint, and the Community Evangelist at DandyID.