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Web usability: Watch and learn

When it comes to measuring the usability of a Web site, users should be seen, before being heard.

User feedback is critical to keeping a Web site in tune with customer needs. But user feedback often does not accurately reflect user experience on the Web. To get the most accurate view of users' satisfaction with a Web site, companies should actually watch users in action.

Realistic scenarios are the best way to find out how users are reacting to the Web site, according to Dr. Susan Weinschenk, owner and principal consultant of Edgar, Wis.-based Weinschenk Consulting Group. Testers should leave the users alone in private rooms to go through these scenarios and think out loud. Meanwhile, they need to monitor the users via video and screen capture tools in another room. After the users finish the scenarios, facilitators should interview them individually, she said.

The most important aspect of this kind of user testing is the interpretation, Weinschenk said. Screen capture software may indicate which link users clicked on, but the interpretation allows companies to find out why they clicked there, she added.

Weinschenk has found contradictions between what users say about a Web site and how they actually interact with it. For example, one participant expressed surprise at having to wait for an insurance quote in the mail after filling in a Web form. But half an hour later, he said he did not expect the quote immediately.

Poor memory is only a minor factor in these discrepancies. Often, people have difficulty reporting their own mental processes, or are unconsciously trying to please the interviewer. Asking users to report on their own preferences and performance is inaccurate 25% of the time, Weinschenk said.

Online surveys are another way to gauge satisfaction. Also, companies need to decide whether to measure performance, preference or both, she said.

"Someone can be able to get their tasks done at a Web site, but say they don't like the site. Or they can say they like it, but have a hard time getting anything done. ...You have to decide which is important to you and which -- or both -- you are going to measure," Weinschenk said.


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