What do potential customers think of your website? What are some of the biggest pain points? Why do people leave your website instead of making a purchase? What should you be doing better?
Up until recently, answering these questions was slow, expensive and out of reach for the majority of small-business owners. However, today, small-business owners with limited marketing research budgets have a range of low-cost tools that make usability research quite accessible. The following tools and tips will help you get started.
1. Select tools based on your research objectives. Google Analytics shows traffic data, where your customers come from and what links they are clicking while on your site. KISSmetrics shows you each user's interaction history to pinpoint where they dropped off, Crazy Egg shows you aggregate data of user clicks with heat maps, and tools like Optimizely are great for conducting A/B testing, which is a method of comparing performance between two versions of the same website.
UserTesting an online platform that helps businesses conduct usability research takes a more traditional approach by connecting panel participants with website owners. With each test, website owners receive a video screencast of people sharing their thoughts and completing specified tests.
"UserTesting offers demographic selectors like age, gender, income, technical skill level and lets you request specifics like 'Must be a pet owner,' for instance," says Liz Carlson of UserTesting. "In comparison to resource-heavy focus groups or qualitative interviews, this process takes less than an hour and costs $39 per participant."
2. Just start testing. If you're new to usability testing, you should just jump in, recommends UserTesting's vice-president of marketing, Chris Hicken. Although you don't need a full marketing and design strategy in place, you should have a clear idea of what you want to get out of your testing.
"Before you begin testing, clarify your goals and how you will use the results," suggests Carlson. "It's also important to start with a pilot test. If the instructions are unclear or have too many twists and turns, you're testing the users, not the website itself."
He adds, "Early on, use testing to identify major problem areas of the site and work on those first. Test again to make sure that your fixes actually made a difference. You'll make some mistakes, but it's so fast to run a new test that you'll quickly learn what works and what doesn't."
3. Read between the lines. What people comment on and what really affects their site usage can be completely different. It's important to pay attention to both.
"Be aware of the difference between what people say and what they actually do," Hicken says. "Create tasks that are easy to validate, and don't lead the participant."
Most important, make sure that you're set up to collect high-quality information. "Disqualify bad participants, and include a 'None' option in survey questions to avoid people guessing," Hicken says.
4. Watch your mobile strategy. For small businesses, mobile can be a tough market to enter. Your Google Analytics data can help you identify whether people are visiting your site through tablets, iPhones or Android devices. But how do you forecast whether people will actually use your app? You should test your app for usability before you launch.
"Mobile tests now make up 20 percent of our order volume," Hicken says. "People are testing their mobile websites, their mobile apps and their unreleased mobile apps."
5. Don't fall into the typical small-business website trap. "Every small business we've tested has failed to clearly communicate what their business does and why the visitor should care," says Hicken. "Sometimes it's bad imagery, sometimes a bad logo, and other times, it's the headlines or taglines. But too often, users arrive on the site and aren't sure what the business does."
In addition to the home page, small businesses should focus on core functionalities like navigation and checkout. Pay attention to the gaps between what people expect and what they're seeing on your site.
"User testing helps businesses discover what categories consumers are actually looking for, and where they expect to find them," says Carlson. "Also, small businesses with online stores should have a smooth checkout process. If your checkout process is complicated, it does not matter how pretty your site is."
6. Start early to save time and money. If your website has problems, you need to catch them early. "If you wait until the website is finished, it will be more expensive to change," Carlson says. "The ultimate point of collecting user feedback is to optimize the design."
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Ritika Puri is a Los Angeles based blogger who writes about trends in business, internet culture, and marketing. She's inspired by the intersection between technology, entrepreneurship, and sociology. Ritika blogs via Contently.com.