When it comes to figuring out whether your website design is working or not, testing is always better than guessing. Regular usability testing will help you determine whether people are using your site the way you think they are, and how friendly it is to your intended purposes.

Traffic data can give you some clues about what parts of your site are visited the most and where your visitors come from, but it doesn’t tell you anything about whether they found what they came for or not. It can, however, give you an idea of what areas need to be tested and improved. For instance, if your home page gets heavy traffic but nobody seems to make it to your product pages, that might signify a usability problem. The only way to be sure, though, is to test it.

The first step in creating a usability test is to identify a list of tasks that users should be able to complete using your site. Keep in mind who your target audience is and what you want people to use your website for. Some examples of tasks may be finding a particular piece of information, or purchasing a specific product.

Next, find subjects for your test. Draw from your target audience and try to get as representative a sample as possible. Remember that the larger your sample is (that is, the more people who participate in the test), the more accurate your results will be. Some factors to take into consideration when selecting your subjects: age, experience with computers/Internet, familiarity with your company/brand, etc.

The benefit of conducting a usability test is that you can get a quantitative measure of how user-friendly your site is. Instead of just asking customers how satisfied they were with the site or how easy it was for them to find what they wanted, you can gather a definite set of measurements and easy-to-compare numbers. Use measurements like time spent on each task, number of errors, number of steps and commands used, etc. You may even want to have users perform the same tasks on your competitor’s site and compare the results to see where you stand.

You also get to observe your subjects’ use of the site and find exactly where the sticking points are. You can note if, when and where they get confused or frustrated. It also helps to ask your subjects to think out loud so you can follow their thought process. Be sure to keep your own mouth shut though and resist the urge to help them, or you’ll skew your results.

As a designer, it is easy to get too close to your work—to know it TOO well. Something that seems obvious to you after working on the site for a long time may actually not be so intuitive to someone seeing it for the first time. Rather than making guesses based on your insider-perspective of the site, take a step back and let someone else give it a try. You may be surprised by the results.

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