The Usability Acid Test

I slagged eMarketer last week for misleading reporting on Twitter usage, so in the spirit of fair play, I’ll show them some love for an interview they did with Kevin Ertell, Vice President of Retail Strategy for ForeSee Results.

In the interview, Kevin nailed the top thing that every single business should have on the top of their to do list:

“We’re seeing at many, many retailers that the amount of people that say they came to make a purchase today is 20% or higher. Yet, those people’s conversion rates are nowhere near 20%. So, there’s a massive gap there, and a lot of that gap can be attributed to usability issues. ”

Kevin is talking retailers, but developing a core usability practice should be a no brainer for any type of business, no matter what their online objectives are. It just doesn’t make sense to spend all that time, money and effort driving leads to a website that then lets those leads slip through hundreds of cracks. I’m a big believer in picking one thing and doing it really, really well. For online marketers, that one thing should always be delivering a great user experience. If you have to make a sacrifice to do it, do it. Nothing is more important than this.

This is one of those things that falls into the common sense category, but very very few companies do usability well. There are a lot of really horrible user experiences out there. Here are 5 usability acid tests to hold yourself to:

Have you crawled inside your customer’s minds? The percentage of companies I know that have done robust research into understanding how their prospect’s brains tick is almost nil. This is the first place you have to start. Why are they coming to your site? What do they want to do? Like I always say, a good place to start is just to stand over a prospect’s shoulder when they’re on your site and start asking why. Sure, it’s not sophisticated usability testing, but it’s a beginning. The important thing is just to start doing something!

Can they find what they’re looking for? Prospects are coming to your site because they’re looking for something. Everybody is looking for something. And the vast majority of your visitors will be looking for a handful of common things. Make sure they find them. Make sure the cues and paths are easy to find, clearly lit and simple to follow. Provide site wide assistance in the form of clear sitemaps and internal search tools that don’t suck.

Can they do what they want to do? Again, prospects come to your site with an objective – something they want to do. The better you understand that objective, the more successful you can be in helping them meet it. Your job – your only job as the site designer – is to understand the paths your visitors want to take and remove any possible friction on those paths. You’ll have business objectives (i.e. capturing lead information) but these should never take priority over your visitor objectives.

Do You Make Your Visitors Do Too Much Thinking? (thanks Steve Krug!) – We do very little thinking when we navigate websites. Most of our online wayfinding is done subsconsciously. The minute you make a prospect stop and think, you’ve introduced friction and reduced their site experience. You should be able to get to where you’re going on the site quickly and intuitively. It’s not a puzzle to be solved. It’s a tool to be put in the hands of your prospects to help them do the things they want to do.

Do you have a servant based site philosophy? – This final point sums up all the previous ones. You don’t own your website..your customers do. Your goal is to meet their needs. Call it a servant based site design philosophy. Never make them sacrifice their objectives to meet yours (as in collecting lead information in a long form before they can get to where they need to get). If you provide enough value, they’ll meet you half way, but never force the issue.

This acid test for usability, if answered honestly, will help you understand how far you are away from a robust usability discipline. Assess and then make it a priority for 2010. There is no better place to spend your time!

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