Usability in Redesign

By Alan Eggleston

How do you get a site redesign right? How do you make sure it fits the needs of your users and will be useful when they come to the site? Two words: Usability Testing.

Certainly, a needs assessment is important. You would want to pool the opinions of your various stakeholders to make sure their voices are heard. You would want to take advantage of the experience of your designer and developer, no doubt about it. But when the preliminary input is received and you begin piecing together the site, theory and input fall to the wayside and the practical takes over. That’s when usability testing is invaluable.

There is always the pressure from within to think we know our users. Yet, until we ask them, until we query them with design-in-hand, until we give the user a chance to interact with our handiwork, we never really know whether our site works for the most important person for whom the site is made – the user.

Usability testing occurs at different milestones in the redesign and tests your assumptions about site navigation and function by having actual users play around with it. They may also test other aspects of the redesign, like color, font, the use and location of various elements, but key to the testing is navigation – it asks the user, does the way we’ve laid out the site make sense to you and is it functional for you? You would be surprised how often our assumptions on behalf of users are wrong.

Stage I – Test Your Thumbnail

At an early stage, it is useful to test a thumbnail or wireframe of the redesign with users. Let them see the home page and ask them to look at it where they think they might go to find different things. It might be as rudimentary as pointing to navigation bars or page elements. If you have named your navigation, this is a good time to test whether it works for the user and which named ones don’t. Even if it is just a rough layout, you can also test where their attention is drawn and where they would like to find different kinds of information.

Stage II – Test Your Navigation

At an intermediary stage, it is useful to test out your articulate site map – your hierarchy of links. If you have a technical structure built, let users test out your navigation. If not, create an interactive graphic that lets you expose navigation levels as they try to drill down. Ask them to use navigation terms to tell you where they would go to find information or items buried beneath the top levels. Be sure to ask them to locate links on the home page that are not in the main navigation bar, such as “Contact” or “About,” which might be at top right or in footer navigation. How long it takes them to respond can tell you how easy it is for people to use your home page. It may be inconvenient, but there should never be a time when you can’t rename something or move something to aid the user when it’s apparent its current name or location isn’t working.

Stage III – Test Your Site

Near the end, when you want to tweak the site before launch, you should bring in the users one more time. This is when the site is built, the links work, the pages are mostly finished even if there are a few stragglers still under development. Now ask your user testers to use the site for a set of defined tasks but also to play around. I would ask: What works well and what doesn’t? What excites you and what disappoints you? What’s a positive surprise and what’s a negative surprise? What worked well and what didn’t work (recognizing that a site still in development may not allow some operations to proceed)? When did you get lost and did you ever feel frustrated? Now consider what it would take to fix any of the issues brought forward by those questions. That close to launch, you may have to save them for site updates, but if they are easy fixes or problems that are critical to site success, you might have to hold the launch until fixes are found.

Testing with Science

One more usability test I didn’t mention till the end: A full-bore market research science-based usability test using computers and cameras and metrics to see how users physiologically react to and use a site – either an existing site for future planning or a new one in development. I waited because these can be costly and not everyone can afford one. But if you can, I highly recommend it. What you learn about how your users actually see and read and react to and use your site is invaluable insight. Assume what you will about your site and users, this is the real thing.

Next Up – Inside Testing

Once you’ve redesigned a site and tested it with users for usability, you need to quality test it to catch the bugs before you release it to the world. Let’s talk quality testing in my next Web Editors article.


3 thoughts on “Usability in Redesign

  1. Sound advice, Alan. One thing we did in our recent redesign was to have 5 members of our association come into the process early – when we were in the planning stages. We asked them to take our then-current navigation, and sort it by audience, and then again by category. It was really interesting to see how differently the members thought than staff did. I decided not to participate in the exercise so that I could observe more closely how the members thought to categorize our subject matter. It truly was an education, and at times, difficult to not speak up!

    Your post is well written, and very thought provoking. I’m looking forward to your quality testing piece – thank you!

    • Thanks for the great example. Whenever I go through usability testing, I am always humbled by how insightful users are about process and how wrong our assumptions can be about the way users think and act. In the early days of the Web, user inexperience meant we could help guide to a certain extent but even then it also meant we often got in the way of simpler, better navigation. Today, users are so much more intuitive than we can be about what will work best for them, and we can learn a lot just from watching and following along. It’s never a wasted exercise.

  2. Pingback: Website Redesign: Keep it Simple | Web Editors

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