I’ve long been a fan of web usability testing — the process of watching representative users complete tasks on your site and pinpointing where they encounter problems. But with traditional user testing, the steps of finding a venue as well as recruiting, scheduling, and paying participants were enough of a pain that I didn’t do much of it. The rise of remoteusability testing tools over the last few years has lowered these barriers in a major way, and we are now encouraging more and more clients to embrace this approach.

Why Usability Test?

What happens when you go to a website that’s confusing or difficult to use? You leave. And you find one that’s easier and clearer.

That’s what visitors on your website do too. If your site’s metrics are typical, around 50% of your visitors bolt without going past page 1, and poor usability is one of the top causes. Understanding your site’s usability road blocks before and during a redesign will make a huge difference in the quality of your new site, and on average will boost conversion rates and other business metrics by over 80%.

The Right Way to Usability Test

Most web designers and marketers skip usability testing because they think they can spot problems themselves. The reality is we are terrible judges of how easy our site is to use. We know where our FAQ page is, and the difference between our Sign Up and Sign In forms, because we’ve used our site a ton.

Representative users are much better judges; but you can’t simply ask them what they like, don’t like, or recommend on your site, as many companies do via focus groups or surveys. They’ll focus on things they’d never notice if they were using your site in the real world. And you’ll end up adding features that no one uses without fixing the core problems that are killing your site’s conversion rates.

To really grasp the usability issues on your site, you need to give users real-world tasks. Most people on the web don’t wander aimlessly; they’re task-oriented. They want a quote on a windshield repair, or a new pair of shoes, or a movie showtime, or an article on pilates retreats.

Figure out the core tasks people want to complete on your site, and then watch and listen as they perform them. Don’t steer them; don’t ask questions. Simply explain the task, tell them to think out loud, and stay quiet.

How Remote Usability Testing Works

Remote usability testing lets you do this type of task-focused testing quickly and cheaply. Services like UserTesting.com and TryMyUI have panels of people who take occasional usability tests from their home or office for $10 a session.

You create a test and say what type of people you want, and they hit up their panel. Testers use software that walks them through your tasks while recording their screen and voice. Once they’re done, they upload the video and you get an email saying it’s ready to watch.

Remote testing isn’t perfect. But neither is lab-based testing. And it’s a lot better than not testing at all, which is the realistic alternative for many companies.

5 Steps to an Effective Test: SugaredSpoon Case Study

Here’s the process we used for a recent test for SugaredSpoon, a new medication reminder web app. We used both UserTesting and TryMyUI.

Step 1: Define Scenario & Tasks

First we wrote up the scenario — or the frame of mind we want participants to assume — and then we added 7 tasks we want them to complete.

When writing your tasks, use clear instructions but take care not to “lead” users to the solution. Avoid using words from buttons and links on the site and instead use synonyms. For instance, we used the word “alerts” in our tasks since some of the key buttons on SugaredSpoon.com use “reminders.”

Step 2: Choose Number of Testers

Most usability experts recommend 4-5 participants for a given test, noting that you’ll catch most issues by the 5th tester and that often you end up wasting your time after that. We went with 5, which comes in under $200 with any of the main services. A bargain.

Step 3: Choose Demographics

A lot of SugaredSpoon’s users are older people, and we want to make sure the site is usable for them. So for this test, we selected people over 55, from the U.S., and with “average” (vs. “advanced”) web expertise. We also added a custom requirement — that they be a med taker.

Step 4: Watch Videos and Take Notes

Now for the fun part. All 5 users completed their tests and uploaded their videos within 1 day. I watched the videos and took notes in the space next to them provided by each tool. Below are some excerpts from one of the user’s videos from TryMyUI, along with some of my notes.

Step 5: Summarize Takeaways

The final step is to create a document that you can share with others (clients, designers, executives, etc.). I reviewed all of my notes together and — paying particular attention to common threads — listed the actionable takeaways in order of priority. For each one, I noted the user(s) where I saw the original problem. And at the bottom of the doc I included links to all of the videos.

Remote usability testing isn’t easy; it takes time and thought to create tests that will uncover the real problems with your site or app. But it’s a lot easier and cheaper than traditional usability testing. And if you approach your test with humility and a willingness to act on your findings, you’re almost certain to end up with an easier-to-use, higher-converting site.