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The Minimalist Guide to Usability Testing

Tell me, what good is a tripod with two legs? Or how about a toothbrush without bristles?

Give up? Well, they're both about as helpful as an unusable website. Usability is a clear front-runner in terms of what a developer should consider most important when developing an e-commerce site. Today, we'll be taking a look at how usability testing works, and why it's important to optimize your e-commerce site for it.

Usability: Defined, Differentiated, Desired

What exactly is usability? It's the ease and/or pleasure with which an end user can navigate your website. Often associated with, and interchangeably referred to as UX (short for User Experience), usability is concerned primarily with the efficiency and effectiveness of a website. UX is a more general term that encompasses usability and refers to every aspect of a user's interaction with the website.

These terms are important because they determine how a visitor, and in this case a customer, interacts with your website as well as how they perceive your brand—not to mention the way they affect your bottom line.

How exactly does usability effect your sales figures? Well, according to a report by the Nielsen Norman Group, a sampling of 42 websites that were redesigned for usability showed a net gain across multiple metrics. Most notable among these? Conversion rates:

As you can see the average improvement on conversion rates was 100 percent. Simply by adhering to basic usability guidelines, the selected websites were able to effectively double their conversions.

That alone is an attractive reason to take usability into account while designing or redesigning your e-commerce site, but usability actually factors into every level of your sales funnel.

Bounce rates, for instance, can also decreased by improving usability. There is a direct correlation with an awesome UX and a lower bounce rate. An unusable site, one that can't be quickly or easily navigated, will often alienate users before they are ready to click anything.

As a result, they usually end up clicking the "back" button.

So obviously you need to optimize your site's usability, but how will you know whether or not your site provides the type of UX your visitors require?

Usability Testing

Usability testing is the process by which you survey a relevant sampling of your target market to discover where your e-commerce site is lacking, and how it might be improved.

Benefits of Usability Testing

The benefits of this process are many, varied and fairly obvious. Still, it's important to enumerate. Usability evaluation will allow you to:

  • Find out whether participants can properly use your site's key functions.
  • Discover the length of time required for each function.
  • Learn the degree of satisfaction users have with your e-commerce site or products.
  • Understand what changes need to be made in order to improve UX, and more specifically, usability.

Simply put, usability testing is essential for creating more effective websites. Consider the following case study, which identifies the results of site redesigns according to usability testing results.

SEOmoz interviewed former, current, and temporary free-trial users before and after a usability testing session. Once they had the testing data, they made changes according to their suggestions.

Still not convinced? Try this factoid on for size: a usability test issued by Expedia.com resulted in an increase of profits to the tune of USD $12 million!

The real kicker? All it took to boost profits was deleting a single field in an opt-in form.

Can you spot the difference? It's not much, but that teensy field in the middle of Variant A was losing Expedia a whole slew of conversions. But why was that exactly?

The company name field was ambiguous, confusing and unnecessary. Users would mistakenly put in the addresses of their banking institutions, which would cause the transaction to fail, and subsequently the users would grow tired of the hassle and abandon the opt-in page entirely.

The cringe-inducing truth is that the field was optional in the first place, and this made it damn near irrelevant. It's not too much of a stretch to say that its sole purpose was to derail conversions.

Conducting Your Own Usability Evaluations

Now that we've explained the importance of an e-commerce site's usability, it's time to figure out how to conduct tests of your own.

There are three steps to administering usability tests:

  1. Recruiting
  2. Conducting
  3. Evaluating

First you must choose participants for your study. Next you conduct the actual study. Then finally, you evaluate your results and implement changes according to your findings.


Start by referring to your target market research. Who are the people you're trying to convert? These are the same folks you'll want to include in your study.

Draw from return customers and offer a small reward in return for participation—exclusive discounts or something of the like. Other sources of participants could include friends or family, (so long as they fit the profile) targeted markets found through social media, etc.

Once you've got your participants, question them about their UX with your e-commerce site. These are preliminary questions about the specific functions that you want to test, as well as their expectations for interacting with your site. Thus the questions you'll ask will differ according to your website and its purpose.


Determine whether you want the testing to be remote or in-person. Remote is much easier to manage and will require a lot less effort, but the choice is up to you.

Make your participants perform tasks that correspond to the functions you want to test. Going through the process of adding to the shopping cart and then proceeding to the checkout menu, for example. You could also test product selections, general site navigation, browsing through products, or whatever else you think might need work.

Generally, testing more is better. After all, you definitely want to know if any aspect of your site is off-putting to your customers.


After the test has been conducted, it's time to rigorously examine the data you've accrued. You do this by measuring time take to perform each task, and by asking the testing participants direct questions such as:

  • Was function X intuitive?
  • Was it difficult/easy?
  • What about it was difficult/easy?
  • What did you like/dislike about function X?

Asking as many detailed and straightforward questions as possible will give you a great deal of insight as to how your target market is interacting with your e-commerce site, and where you'll need to implement changes.

Best Practices for Improving UX

While each e-commerce site is unique in its usability needs, there are some key features which should be universally applied.


Make your site easily navigable. Interlink with relevant content in a silo structure. Not only will this link all of your content, making your site easy to navigate, but it will also improve your e-commerce site's SEO.

Clear Content

Clarity of content is an important facet of usability. If your site is cluttered and confusing, or hard to read in any way, it becomes far less usable.

Brand Recognition

An e-commerce site should always have consistent branding so as to avoid confusing a user with vastly different color schemes or layouts.

Clear CTAs

Calls to Action (CTAs) direct user attention as well as the flow of your site's traffic. You want to have a clear course of directed action at the end of every web page to move your customer further along your sales funnel.

Simple and Easy Shopping Cart

Shopping carts are often major sources of site abandonment. You've almost closed the sale when your visitors are at this point, so you need to make sure the checkout process is as painless as possible. You need few steps and simple actions—ask the user to do the absolute minimum to complete the sale.

The following graph illustrates the top 100 highest-grossing e-commerce sites and the number of steps their checkout processes have.

As you can see, the most common number of steps among the big players is 5. It should be noted, however, that the number of steps is second in importance to the simplicity of the actions required in each step.

One final tip as far as your e-commerce site usability is concerned: Requiring a membership and registration on your website to make a purchase doesn't necessarily mean more profits. In fact, many users will find it objectionable. Guest registrations may be a better way to go, and you shouldn't expect it to cut into your bottom line.

As the above comparison illustrates, no matter how much your e-commerce site is grossing in profit, guest registrations are far more common, and a lot less hassle to your customers.

That's about all we have room for in today's minimalist examination of usability. If you'd like some more examples of what constitutes a positive UX, take a look at this blog post, which examines a more comprehensive sampling of effective e-commerce websites.

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