Monthly Archives: March 2010

7 Reasons Why You Can’t Sell Usability, And What To Do About It

No Usability Sale

Selling usability services has been on my mind quite a bit lately, and in that respect I’m not alone.  Several other usability practitioners have discussed selling usability or UX.  Some of them include Alan Colville, who recently posted an excellent article on selling UX to large companies, Kate Walser and her wonderful UX in the Boardroom article, and even the very useful book Selling Usability by John S. Rhodes.

All of these practitioners and more discuss the problems inherent in explaining usability and UX services to companies that are prospects for potential services.

So why then is selling usability so difficult?  In my opinion, it’s quite simple;

“They won’t buy usability if they don’t know what it is.”

The problem of selling usability:

The problem with selling usability has nothing to do with you and how you pitch your usability services, or your advertising approach, your marketing materials, prospect lists or the copy you create to sell.  The problem is;

“The audience is completely unreceptive to ANY sales message, because the service is not understood.”

Educate first, sell second:

The best method for you to use for selling usability is to not sell it at all.  Instead, work toward educating prospects first about:

  • What usability is (and what it isn’t)
  • Why usability is helpful / necessary
  • How to easily fit usability into the Software Development Life Cycle

After educating prospects about usability, and touching on the benefits usability can bring to your prospect then you can start selling usability.

If dealing with a prospect who either doesn’t know about usability, or is misinformed about how it works, you must know who you are talking to.  You must understand and deal with the reason or reasons for their lack in interest about usability.  Properly educating prospective clients is the best way to sell usability.

Here’s my top 7 reasons why selling usability is so difficult, and what to do about it, I hope you find these useful (note, scroll to the bottom of the page for a handy list of selling usability references used in this article):

#1 – Usability is not understood by senior management:

In many organizations, both large and small, usability is not part of the process for development because senior management has no clue what usability is.  Why should they?  Usability is not typically part of traditional business administration or technology training.

Usawhat?  What's usability?

Also, senior management, especially technology leaders, are not compensated for usability or user satisfaction of the applications they build.  They are only compensated for how well they complete projects on-time, on-budget and on-target to requirements and specifications. At mid-sized and small companies this impact is even greater.

Solution – Target usability education at senior management levels:

When usability is not understood at all in a company, I’ve found the best way is to start education at the top, speaking the language of executives in terms of ROI.  Providing education and information about how usability contributes to improvements in application speed, reduction in errors, or increases in revenue uses the terms executives understand, and are compensated for.  Human Factors International does a good job of providing calculators for ROI that executives will understand.

#2 – Just say “no”

A very wise former supervisor of mine once told me that he observed that people that moved up the corporate ladder and stayed there were excellent at saying “no.”

Just Say No to Usability

His opinion was that by saying “no” to trying anything new, saying “no” to changing the old routine, and saying “no” to unknown results these managers could safely continue to exist in their organizations.

Perhaps you’ve run across a “no” man from time to time.

Solution – Go over, around or under those that say “no”

It’s unlikely you’ll ever get a true “no” manager to say “yes.”  You can try, using education about how usability will actually enable the manager’s goals to be hit easier, quicker and with better certainty.

There’s even an excellent book on how to deal with Getting Past “No” which you may find useful. However this is a long shot.  “No”  just comes naturally to these types of managers.

You may have to simply cut the “no” manager out of the equation if all else fails.  If necessary, focus on someone either above, or to the side of that person (equal to, but in a different department for example).  I’m not advocating not trying; rather I’m advocating spending your limited resources where the greatest good has the potential of occurring.

#3 – Usability doesn’t add to revenue

I once tried to sell usability testing to a small firm that produces applications on behalf of large businesses.  However, this firm was very resistant to my usability testing.  Why?  Because they were paid to generate code according to the requirements provided by their clients (who knew nothing about usability) and usability didn’t add to their revenue.

No Revenue from Usability

Adding usability testing to the development process would have cost this little company money, money they hadn’t budgeted for and weren’t going to get back from their client.  Worse, it might result in potentially needing to change the requirements, which would cause client issues and potential release delays, and thus more money.  Far from being a revenue generator, usability was considered an unnecessary and potentially dangerous expense.  How sad.

Solutions – Speak revenue in terms each type of prospect understands

For developer companies that build apps for 3rd parties, they could bundle usability as a component of their services, and either add a new revenue stream because they charge their clients for it, or differentiate their services from competitors by offering usability testing as part of the development package (to provide an even better application).

For marketing and sales types, pointing to the usability success of the $300 million button and related success stories of eCommerce gains would be a great usability revenue generation education tool.

For applications developers / owners, the ability to sell more units, based on improved interface performance would be useful.

The Nielsen Norman Group produced a helpful ROI of Usability study that provides plenty of rationale for usability’s return on investment.  All would be excellent ways to drive home the point that usability can indeed add to revenue.

#4 – Usability will slow development down

I hear this concern about usability slowing development down mostly from technology teams.  The thinking is; “We already have our requirements and specifications, so UI issues are already decided.  There’s no time to test usability, testing will slow us down and add no value.”

Usability will slow me down

The real issue here is the technology team is probably acting in a reactive manner, and simply building code based on requirements received.  They may have no power, or no desire, to rock the interface boat based on usability testing results, they may not own the requirements.  Thus there’s “no time” to usability test.

Solution – Educate the requirements owners about usability

The solution in this case is to find and educate the people responsible for drafting and approving the requirements, which may not be the technology team.  Mention how usability can be added to early stage development (paper prototype stage or wireframes) with minimal time impact, and maximum effectiveness.  Tout the ability of early testing to optimize UI design decisions, so that the requirements can be written and or revised with better UI information.

#5 – Usability is focus groups which are already done (or not needed)

This argument comes mostly from companies that have marketing research departments or leaders, who assume usability is just a form of market research.  The issue here is lack of education about the methodology and purpose of usability testing.

Focus Groups are not usability

Solution – Educate about the differences between focus groups and usability testing

Here’s where you must clearly define that usability testing is not about gathering opinions about designs (aka market research and focus groups), it’s about gather task-flow error points.  I’ve found using a table or chart showing the differences in usability testing vs. market research goals, methods and analysis can help educate market research types who are confused about or unaware of the differences.  Another handy tool is WebCredible’s article on the differences between focus groups and usability testing.

#6 – There’s no budget for usability (it’s expensive)

I partly blame us usability practitioners for causing this confusion about usability and budgets.  It doesn’t help that well known usability gurus charge $38,000 for a simple usability review of a web site.  Although this may be their cost, your cost might be significantly less.  The assumption prospects may make is if they charge that, so do you.

Usability is Expensive

Also, there are many usability agency web sites that make no mention of the cost of their various usability services at all.

And it doesn’t help that the usability industry itself has no standard definitions for simple usability terms and prices vs. services guidelines for things like remote testing, usability reviews, heuristic evaluations, etc. etc. etc.  We as an industry are helping to cause this confusion.

Solution – Educate about the costs of usability testing

The reality is your usability testing might cost far less than $38,000 for a basic usability review, and you need to tell prospects that.  Also, applying remote research methods early in the design process is a very cost-effective way to run usability testing.  Informing prospects about the costs of usability, based on each type of test (in-person, remote, moderated, unmoderated, etc.) can really help to clear up all the confusion.

A couple of good resources to use are Bolt | Peter’s article on comparing remote to in-person usability testing and the how-to book, Remote Research which has case studies and related cost/benefit information for low cost remote testing methods.

#7 – Usability isn’t needed, we use web site metrics and A/B testing

I hear this often from eCommerce firms that have dedicated web analytics or optimization teams.  The feeling here is they already have detailed reporting and testing for all user interactions.  Their reporting, and resulting A/B or multivariate testing already provide optimizations, thus no usability testing is needed.  Some prospects mistakenly believe “hard” interaction data via A/B testing is much better than “soft” usability testing data.

A/B Testing

Solution – Educate about the “why” of usability

Moderated usability testing is the only tool I know that can best uncover the “why” of user behavior.  Explaining this to metrics-happy companies can be a difficult proposition.  It helps to inform them that there’s a difference between only knowing that button “B” had 25% more clicks than button “A”, versus WHY button “B” had 25% more clicks.  The usability testing “why” information can be used to make better decisions about future tests.  This is because user reasoning and behavior is now part of the A/B testing equation.

A helpful tool you might use is my post on A/B vs Usability testing.

Conclusion: Top 7 reasons why you can’t sell usability

So those are my top 7 reasons why you can’t sell usability to prospects.  The issue is selling can’t happen if there is a lack of understanding about what usability is.  The best approach I’ve found is to educated prospects about usability, based on their reason given for not needing it.  If properly educated and informed about what usability is, how it works and how it can provide benefits, prospects almost don’t need any selling.  They will actually approach you with a potential project.

Perhaps I’ve not covered a reason you’ve run across?  I hope you’ll take a moment to share with us in the comments your typical reasons, and how you deal with them!

Selling Usability Handy Resources Guide:




Lists of Selling Tools


A handy list of 8 Free tools for good information architecture and usability

For web sites, information architecture is the way content is organized and categorized on the site.  It is the backbone of navigation, taxonomy (labeling) and user experience.  A common way to think of it is to consider the information architecture as ‘buckets of information’ that make up the sections of the web site.  Concepts that are grouped together can go in the same ‘bucket.’

Example, an information architecture, or ‘buckets of information’ for a web site about cars and things might be:

    • Chevy, Ford, Mercedes
  • OTHER:
    • Teacups, Shoes

Information architecture problems in web sites are fairly common:

I bring this up because I was recently interviewed by Forrester for their upcoming study on usability trends and tools.  I was asked, ‘What problems do you see over and over again?’

The answer I gave is that no two web sites have the exact same set of problems.  However, if I had to define a single issue that is pretty common it’s that many web sites have holes in the IA, or just plain poor information architectures, which cause visitors difficulty when navigating.

Information Architecture and eCommerce web sites:

Think about information architecture and usability as it relates to an eCommerce site:

If your web site information architecture is good, but your usability (task-flow) is bad, your web site visitors will be able to find what they are looking for but will eventually have to muddle through the buy-flow tasks, resulting in mediocre conversion.

If however your web site information architecture is bad, but your usability is good, most of your web site visitors won’t be able to find what they are looking for, and the usability won’t matter because they will leave before getting to the buy-flow, resulting in poor conversion.

Analyze and fix information architecture problems:

To improve eCommerce web sites it’s critical to evaluate, find and fix any holes or related problems with the information architecture.  Doing so ensures the maximum number of web site visitors can find what they are looking for, and will help improve conversion and web site ROI.

So here then are 8 free Information Architecture tools that can be used to evaluate and optimize a web site.  Using these tools to create random lists of content items, then having representative web site visitors group them into similar categories is the best way to identify if your content fits the mental map of your users, and if not, where and how to change it.

8 Free information architecture tools:

1. A Paper and Pencil:

It’s amazing how powerful a simple piece of paper and pen or pencil can be for use with information architecture studies.  Paper and pencil is simple to use, fast and effective, completely mobile and requires no batteries, lighting conditions or signal strength.

Paper and Pencil
Paper and Pencil are the ultimate mobile information architecture tools

Listing out content items, then asking others to draw circles around similar groupings is a great way to facilitate information architecture analysis and optimization. I also include in this list your standard chalkboards, easels and conference room whiteboards along with the old standby, 3X5 index cards.

2. Free Online Whiteboards:

Another amazingly simple yet powerful IA tool is free online whiteboards.   There are numerous versions of online whiteboards, but all generally do the same thing, they allow you to visually present content items, and allow others to group them into categories.  You create the lists of content items, and then invite participants to collaborate by drawing circles around similar groupings.  These are great tools for obtaining user feedback on your information architecture.

Some free online whiteboards you can use include:

GEs Imagination Cubed



Imagination Cubed by GE
Imagination Cubed by GE

3. Excel:

The vast majority of businesses and individuals have Microsoft Excel as part of their software package, so in that sense it’s a free tool.  And because it’s almost universal, and almost universally used, Excel is a great tool for information architecture studies and optimization.  Creating lists of content items and asking participants to grab cells of content and group them is a very fast, and free, method to check or create an information architecture.

Excel is a great free information architecture tool
Excel excels at information architecture

Because it can handle hundreds (or thousands) of cells, excel is very handy for larger web sites with numerous content items.

4. PowerPoint:

Just like Excel, PowerPoint is almost universal in availability.  PowerPoint includes the OrgChart feature which allows you to create listings of content items that can be grouped via connected lines, or boxes around the content items.

PowerPoint is a powerful information architecture tool
PowerPoint is a powerful information architecture tool

The only consideration with PowerPoint is that if you have a larger number of content items to list, you may run out of space on the page.  One trick I’ve used is to create a custom page size that is much larger than a standard piece of paper.  However, printing such a larger size page can be problematic, so consider one of the other methods if you have lots of items to list and can’t fit them on a standard-sized page.

5. Your own Website Search results

It’s amazing what a wealth of information architecture data is available in the search results listings of a web site – you DO have search on your web site, right?  Most web site log analysis tools enable you to see the terms your web site visitors are searching for on your site.  You receive directly from your web site visitors a listing (ranked in order of number of times each term is searched for) for content that is either missing from your web site, or too hard to find.

Web site search results from log files
Web site search results from log files

These search terms listings are a great way to find the holes in your information architecture and plug them up with helpful and usable content.

6. Google Adwords Suggestion Tool

If you are creating an information architecture and need some help thinking about what terms to include, or what terms may go with other terms, consider Google’s free Adwords Suggestion Tool.  This tool is primarily used by Search Engine Marketers to find related terms to post Adwords advertising on.

Google Adwords free suggestion tool helps fix holes in information architectures
Google Adwords suggestion tool

However it’s also a handy free tool to help information architects derive variations or sub-sets of content items from main items.  It includes “Additional keywords to consider” which is sorted by relevance, making for quick work when trying to create related concepts of content.

When using the Adwords Suggestion tool, make sure to keep the “Use synonyms” check box checked (it’s the default state) because that enables the tool to consider variations of the terms you enter.

Google Adwords Selection tool
Google Adwords Keyword Selection tool

7. StickySorter by Microsoft Office Labs

Another handy free tool for sorting lists of content into groups is Micrsoft Office Labs free StickySorter tool.  It uses a computer version of sticky notes to enable people to group and move concepts around, which is a handy way to explore new versions of an information architecture.

StickySorter is great for information architecture work

Unlike some of the online tools mentioned, you have to download StickySorter to use it, and it requires Windows XP or Vista.  But the powerful features of exporting large amounts of data via .csv files makes quick work of organizing larger amounts of content into appropriate categories using familiar visual representations of stickynotes.

8. xSort by Enough Pepper (Mac only freeware)

For you Mac fans, xSort enables creating and grouping various content listings using a computer version of the tried-and-true 3×5 index cards on a table theme.  Handy for use when conducting card-sorts, it’s easy enough to use for almost all your participants and will help identify from the user’s perspective the proper grouping of content items.

xSort for the Mac
xSort for the Mac

Conclusion: 8 free tools for better information architecture and usability

So there’s the list of 8 free information architecture tools you can use to help improve the IA, and thus the usability and conversion of your web site.  Of course there are other tools out there, including a host of great tools that cost very little.  If I’ve left off your favorite just add a brief comment below, that way you can share your tool and we can all grow a little smarter together!

Note: Companies mentioned in this article may or may not be advertisers on this site. However, in no way does their sponsorship or lack thereof impact the results of this or any other editorial content on the site. In all cases, the same rubric for evaluation is used to compare tools or services and all results reflect the outcome of the comparison without regard to whether a company is advertising on the site or not.

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Review of the usability book ‘Remote Research’ by Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathimutte

Book - Remote Research by Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathimutte

For those of you who’ve been following my blog for a while (hi Mom! hi @kailualisa!) you know the risk Nate, Tony and Lou Rosenfeld took asking me if I’d like to read and potentially review their new usability book, “Remote Research.”

As you know, I don’t pull any punches, and I calls ’em like I sees ’em.

Although I was provided by the authors with a free evaluation copy of the book – I am fully prepared to skewer it like a hot knife through butter if I think it’s a waste of your and my time (and money!).

The news for you, Nate and company is: I have read the book cover to cover and I can state in no uncertain terms that this is a usability book that usability practitioners, or those learning about or just interested in usability, should buy and can use over and over.

Simply put: You’ll use this book, a lot.

The reason?

For a nominal fee of US $36 (softcover and DRM-Free PDF, or $22 for 2 editions of PDFs) you will have a very handy how-to / reference guide for conducting remote research you will use again and again.

Heres some of the key points covered in the book:

  • What remote usability research is (and what it isn’t)
  • Pros and Cons of conducting remote research
  • Step by step how to (for first timers)
  • Detailed list of tools (both moderated and un-moderated)
  • Tips and tricks for each tool (experienced remote researchers take note!)
  • A companion web site with additional tools and information is included

Gosh, Nate and Tony even go so far as to include a rebuttal from remote research h8r opponent Andy Budd, creative director at Clearleft, as to why remote research should NOT be used.

I think Nate and Tony have done a good job of being fair about this subject, sharing both the pros as well as the cons of remote usability testing.

Review of ‘Remote Research’

The writing is light and easy to read, you won’t feel at all like you are reading a manual or dictionary.  Jargon is kept to a minimum, and for each new term they use Nate and Tony explain what it means in plain English.

Rather than putting me to sleep at night (I’m looking at you, ‘The Complete History of Taxation’) I found the writing to be fun, engaging and sprinkled with humorous yet relevant dialog.

Reading this book is very much like having a fun yet informative lunch with a remote research guru – you learn a lot, and enjoy the experience along the way.

Remote usability testing for first timers:

For some of you, it’s probably not necessary to read the entire book cover to cover (but you should, because you will be missing some humorous comments and very helpful pointers).  Those who have not yet conducted remote usability testing should read Chapters 1-5 and 7 (I’ll break out more information about each chapter below).

Those chapters are perfect for first timers, as they provide the overview of what remote testing is, along with step by step instructions for conducting your first remote usability test.  Included is a detailed listing of all the tools (there’s not many) you’ll need.

Remote usability testing for old pros:

For those of us who’ve already been conducting remote usability testing sessions, you’ll probably want to focus more on Chapters 7-9, and potentially Chapter 6 (Automated tools).  That’s not to say you shouldn’t read the other chapters, I learned some new ideas and tips in the overviews that I’m anxious to try, just that if you are pressed for time you may find those the most actionable.

So here then is a brief overview of each chapter with some of my observations about it included:

Chapter 1 – Why Remote Research?

The book starts with a very helpful overview of the various types of remote usability research methods.  It also includes a very helpful case study.  I think this chapter provides some useful tools you can use to “sell” remote usability testing internally, if you are in an organization that is resistant or unaware of the benefits.  Likewise, if you are selling remote usability research to prospective clients I think you will want to read this and use the information.

However, I do have one point of contention.  In Chapter 1, and later in the book Nate and Tony refer to the cost of remote researching being almost equal to in-person moderated testing, thus not having a big cost savings.  This in my opinion is not exactly accurate.

They were apparently basing their cost from the perspective of a consulting agency using remote vs. in-person testing, and thinking mostly about the billable hours of moderation and analysis – not from a Corporate (i.e. Client) infrastructure perspective.

At several companies I worked at, I created detailed studies comparing in-person vs remote testing costs if the company were to:

  • Build and maintain a usability lab
  • Rent usability labs
  • Use remote testing technology and methods

My analysis revealed that remote testing was the clear winner for lowest cost, by a landslide.

Building a lab for in-person testing vs. using remote methods only made sense if the company would either use the lab every day (none of the companies was big enough to do that) or rent the lab out to 3rd parties during down time (none thought that was a good idea).

Renting usability labs for in-person testing was far more expensive than using remote methods.  When you look at the total costs after just one year of usability testing remote easily won.  And if you compared both after several years of usability testing, the costs of paying for travel, hotels, per diem and lab rental fees for rental usability labs was astronomically more expensive than the costs for using remote research methods.

My personal opinion?  There’s almost no difference in results for conducting usability test sessions remotely vs. in-person with a usability lab – the methodology and tools for conducting the testing are almost identical, and the task-error results will be the same.  My belief is unless usability labs can add additional value beyond straight usability testing, over time they will go the way of 8-track tapes and VCRs (technologies that became cumbersome and too expensive vs. newer tools).

Again, that’s just my opinion and I hasten to add is not mentioned in the book.

Chapter 2 – Moderated Research: Setup

In this chapter Nate and Tony provide a detailed step-by-step process for actually conducting a real remote usability test.  I believe the information is perfect for beginners, and even seasoned pros may find some of the information new or different, I know I did.  I found the table of screen sharing tools at a glance (on page 34) to be very handy, as well as the detailed scripts and observer instructions.  You’ll probably dog-ear the example script pages here, and use them later, I did.

Chapter 3 – Recruiting for Remote Studies

Recruiting for remote usability testing is potentially one of the trickiest parts of the whole process – and must be done right – else the study can be flawed.  Nate and Tony do a great job of providing plenty of detail and tips on how to recruit, and how to avoid using bad recruits (fakers and professional survey takers).

Chapter 4 – Privacy and Consent

Legal stuff is boring.  But I think you should really, really read this chapter – you’ll thank me later when you avoid a multi-million dollar privacy lawsuit.  The legality and privacy issues of recording a participant is a critical element of usability testing, and there’s very little information out there about what to watch out for.  This chapter provides excellent information and should, after you read it, make you reach for the phone to call your lawyer and get more information about the dos and don’ts of legal language for your consent forms.

Chapter 5 – Moderating

Moderating is tricky, and Nate and Tony do a good job providing details and insight into how to be a better remote testing moderator – along with very handy example scripts.  Unless you do a lot of moderating (and by a lot I mean doing it every day) I think you’ll really appreciate the guidance and tips in this chapter.

Chapter 6 – Automated Research

Nate and Tony do a great job explaining what automated research is (also called un-moderated), what it’s not, how to use it and when not to use it.  I’ve dog-eared plenty of pages in this chapter – especially page 128 which contains a really great chart of the major automated research tools and where they sit in the dimensions of Qualitative vs. Quantitative and Concrete vs. Conceptual.  I think I may blow this chart up and place it on my wall.

Chapter 7 – Analysis and Reporting

It’s a funny thing about usability testing, there are lots of standards for how to do it, but almost no standards for how to analyze and especially report on it to clients.  This chapter covers both moderated and un-moderated analysis and reporting, and provides some really nice examples of ways to report effectively on all the data captured.  Also included are examples and tips of how other usability experts report results to their clients – good stuff.

Chapter 8 – Remote Research Tools

This chapter is worth the cost of the book all by itself.  It provides the best list I’ve seen of remote tools, including screen-sharing, recording and automated tools and services.  And here’s the really great part, Nate and Tony provide tips and tricks for how to use each of these tools.  From Adobe Connect to Webnographer, this is a comprehensive list and cheat-sheet of testing tools.  I am almost certain that you’ll dog-ear almost every page of this chapter, just like I did.

Chapter 9 – New Approaches to User Research

Nate and Tony provide some very interesting new tools and techniques, including one of my favorites, reverse screen sharing.  There’s also some good advice and guidance on mobile device research and research on video games.  They’ve even included information on conducting remote testing in cars.  Considering the rapid expansion of multi-modal mobile devices I fully expect in the next year or two to see a lot more research and research information about testing these devices in their “natural” environment such as the car, train, home or bleachers at the kid’s softball game.

Chapter 10 – The Challenges of Remote Testing

This chapter is an excellent listing with details about the issues and potential problems associated with remote usability testing.  Everything from legitimacy to getting the right recruits to persistent negativity is covered.  I think Nate and Tony did a good job keeping it real, so to speak, with being up-front about when to use, and when NOT to use, remote testing, and what some of the problems and pitfalls are.

Conclusion – Book review of “Remote Research” by Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathimutte

So, with “Remote Research” I believe you have a very useful and practical guide to remote usability testing.  This book is easy to read, is written in a open, honest and humorous way, and will provide you with a large amount of useful information you’ll be able to use again and again.  I have a special place for books I refer to often (down low on the wall bookshelf, where I can reach them) and that’s where this book is going.

I suspect you’ll place this book in an easy-to-reach place as well.

You can buy the book “Remote Research” at Rosenfeld Media, or at your favorite online bookseller.

Book Details:

  • Remote Research” By Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathimutte
  • Copyright 2010, Rosenfeld Media, LLC
  • First published, February 2010
  • ISBN: 1-933820-77-2
  • 266 Pages
  • Available in paperback and DRM-free PDF (US $36.00)
  • 2 digital editions (screen-optimized and print it yourself PDFs) (ISBN 1-933820-44-6) (US $22.00)


In case you were wondering if I’m making any profit from this review, I’m not.  The authors/publisher of this book provided a free evaluation copy of this book for my personal use.  I was not compensated for this review nor required to write this review.   The views, content and opinions expressed in this book review are mine alone.  Links from this review to the book web site are not affiliate links and I receive no money for traffic sent from this site to the book site nor for sales of the book.  I’m honest and non-biased.  Broke, but non-biased.  Hey, that’s how I roll.

Here are 7 ways you can increase your web site sales with usability.

Ecommerce web sites can use these seven powerful usability tools to help understand what behavior is occurring on the site, and most importantly WHY that behavior is occurring.

This is extremely helpful because managers can use this information to optimize the usability of the site – thus increasing conversion and ultimately sales.

Batman's Utility-belt

Just like Batman and his utility belt full of tools, usability experts have available a variety of tools designed to fight the crimes of task-flow error and poor performance.  These usability tools, used either separately or in conjunction with one another, can help determine where in an eCommerce web site there are usability issues that are causing lost conversion and sales.  Implementing optimizations based on the analysis of the “why” of these task-flow errors can help increase web site conversion and sales.

So here then is a list of 7 ways eCommerce web sites can increase web sales with usability:

1. Conduct in-person moderated usability testing of your web site

This is the traditional, and arguably the best method to learn about where there are usability issues that are impacting web site performance, thus sales.  I refer to it as “best” because it uses real users and directly answers the question of “why” your web site visitors are doing the crazy behaviors they do (like leaving order-flow pages early, or clicking the browser back and forward buttons continually part way through your eCommerce sales pages).

The “moderated” part of in-person moderated usability testing means the test participant and the moderator (and potentially observers) are present in the same room for the test sessions, and the moderator delivers the test and probes interesting behaviors with follow-up questions.

In-person moderated usability testing provides full interaction with and observation of the testing participants as they conduct the test.  This enables the moderator to follow-up or probe issues as they occur, and learn from the participant the “why” of behavior and task-flow issues.  In terms of actual usability data this method provides the most detail and best analysis of your web site, which eventually leads to optimization and increased sales.

Pros:  Arguably the best way to gather usability data about your web site.  Provides detailed observations and feedback via the in-person 1-on-1 interaction between the moderator and the participant.

Cons: Takes more time to set-up and administer than other methods.  Costs more than many other methods and can be difficult or almost impossible logistically due to geography / distance.

2. Conduct a remote moderated usability test of your web site

Almost equal to the power of in-person moderated testing is remote moderated usability testing.  With remote testing, the participant and the moderator interact together while conducting the test, but are not in the same room, maybe not even in the same country!

By using technology such as screen-sharing software, phones, web cams, and audio-video recording, a live moderated test can be conducted from anywhere, with almost anyone.  The moderator could for example be in let’s say, Los Angeles, California, and the participant could be sitting at her computer in say London, England.

As with in-person moderated testing, remote moderated usability testing enables the moderator to observe and ask critical follow-up or probing questions with the participant.  This provides rich and detailed “why” behavioral data that can be used to make recommendations for optimizing the site, thus leading eventually to increased sales.

If a web cam and microphone are available on the participant’s end, this enables the visual and audio interaction that is obtained via in-person testing.  The only issue is that the same technology relied upon to deliver the computer-to computer or phone connection can sometimes fail (or technical term “hic-up”), causing issues or problems with the remote test.

Pros: Almost as good as in-person usability testing.  In some ways better than in-person testing because remote moderated usability testing enables testing of participants regardless of geography, and thus can be far faster and cheaper than in-person moderated testing.

Cons: The technology used for the connections (telephone and or sharing of computers) can sometimes fail, causing issues with the test itself.  In-person remote usability testing without the added visual component of a web cam means helpful non-verbal information is not obtained.

3. Conduct a remote un-moderated usability test of your web site

Often referred to as automated research (and by Scrabble champions as asynchronous research) remote un-moderated usability testing uses online tools to deliver usability tests to users without a human moderator being present.  The user is typically intercepted via a pop-up or related type of request to participate in the study, and upon acceptance the participant is walked through the study via written instructions – while behavior is captured via click-analysis and participant feedback gathered via survey-type questions at the end of the study.

Because actual users are part of the study, this is a very helpful source of data – especially when larger numbers of participants are used.  Data gathered from the analysis of the testing can lead to usability optimizations that increase conversion and thus web site sales.

Unlike moderated usability testing however, there is no ability to modify the test in real-time based on participant behavior or feedback.  Thus the “why” of behavior may not be readily available.  To help understand the “why,” automated usability testing has to carefully include sufficient questions to dig into participant attitudes and opinions about their behavior without leading the witness (so to speak).

The validity of results for remote un-moderated usability testing completely relies upon the skills and expertise of the person developing the test.  This is NOT the place for amateurs or do-it-yourselfers who have no usability training.  A poorly set up test with leading questions could actually harm web site sales, because the tainted results of a bad automated study if applied on a web site could negatively impact conversion and thus sales.

Pros: A very quick and relatively inexpensive way to gather large amounts of actual user behavioral data.  Testing can be run on almost any web site (including your competitors!) and analysis can lead to optimizations that improve eCommerce conversion and thus sales.

Cons: Developing automated tests that evaluate the right information but without providing give-away answers or leading questions is very difficult without the expertise of a trained professional.  The inability to probe participants and dig into the why of their behaviors while they are conducting the test means important feedback may not be available.

4. Conduct  an expert usability review of your web site

An expert usability review is an audit of your web site by a trained usability professional.  The usability review is an examination of the site against common usability best practices and heuristics, which are the 10 general principles for user interface design.

The usability review should  include detailed analysis including screen captures of the web pages with specific call-outs for where the issues are, what they are, and potential ways the issues can be optimized.  This is a very fast and efficient way to gather usability feedback about an eCommerce site.  The information provided can be used to optimize the site and thus improve conversion and sales.

The issue with expert usability reviews is they don’t use actual web site visitors for testing at all – instead the expert evaluates the site in much the same way a Doctor evaluates your health during a check-up.  If only one expert conducts the review, it’s unlikely that the expert usability review will find all the usability problems.  The important “why” of user behavior is not available, although the trained expert may give opinions about potential reasons for the “whys.”

Pros: Very quick and efficient way to learn about potential usability issues and opportunities for improvement.  Lower in cost than many other usability testing types.

Cons: If only conducted by one person, usability issues may be missed.  Worse, because actual users are not tested and observed, the “whys” of user task flow errors are not captured.

5. Conduct a click-stream analysis of your web site

Another handy usability tool is click-stream analysis, which can be used to map typical (or more interestingly atypical) paths through your eCommerce web site.  Evaluations of where users click on a page (or where they don’t!) can lead to testing of new placements, graphic treatments or related optimization of buttons, calls-to-action and related interaction elements.

Most click-stream analysis tools provide a snippet of code you place on your web pages, which enables the tracking of actual users clicks.  Because your real users are providing this real data, it can be very helpful when evaluating usability optimizations to improve conversion and thus sales.  Several tools also capture form entry data, which can be very useful when trying to evaluate why certain form fields have high error or abandonment rates.

However, because there is no “why” information of user behavior, click-stream analysis misses important user behavioral information and feedback.  This means that to a certain extent some guess-work is required to evaluate results and make recommendations, a dangerous proposition if the guesses are wrong and conversion and sales decrease instead of increase.  I typically recommend to my clients who are interested in using click-stream analysis to do so in conjunction with A/B or multivariate testing of resulting recommended optimizations.  It’s a safe way to hedge your bets and ensure you don’t hurt instead of improve sales.

Pros: A very handy way to evaluate actual user click actions on a page, or better yet across several pages.  Very cost-effective, and assuming you have the ability to add code to your pages can be set up and run quickly.

Cons: Doesn’t provide the “why” of user behavior.  Interpretation of results and recommendations for optimizations is completely reliant on the skills of the evaluator.  Can be privacy and or security issues if captured data includes form entries as well as clicks.

6. Conduct an eye-tracking study of your web site

Ahh eye tracking, the one subject that seems more than most to cause usability professionals to take sides and in some locations (picture a bar with a few drinks under their belts) might even cause a fight.  Some usability professionals swear by eye tracking, and some usability professionals swear AT eye tracking.

Eye tracking is a means of providing a participant with an apparatus that tracks their eye movements as they look at a web page or pages.  Typically the path of the users eyes as they move around the page is recorded (this is called “saccades”) as well as the amount of time users focus on particular places on the page (this is called “fixations”).  Aggregating multiple sessions of eye tracking can provide common visual paths users take as they view a page or pages.

Proponents of eye tracking  use the information to determine what objects seem to be capturing a users attention, and what elements are ignored or missed.  This can be helpful when analyzing and optimizing placement or graphical features of important objects on pages, which can potentially help improve usability and thus web site sales.

Opponents of eye tracking claim the data is highly artificial and potentially not valid because users are not in their normal environment and are required to use technological implements that they normally would not use.  In addition, opponents feel the data can be misinterpreted, causing potentially bad recommendations that could hurt web site conversion and thus sales.

Pros: Enables eCommerce web site managers to gather actual user visual data as participants scan web pages and objects on the page.  Analysis of what is capturing attention, as well as what is not capturing attention can be used to optimize placement or graphical features of objects on the page – potentially resulting in increased conversion and sales.

Cons: Can be expensive and time-consuming to set-up and run.  Opponents maintain that because of the technology required to capture the data, the user is not in their normal context and thus results may not be accurate.  Further, analysis of results and subsequent recommendations for changes are completely reliant on the skills of the evaluator.  They “why” of typical web site user behavior may also not be known as eye movement is only one part of the interaction a user has with a web site.

7. Conduct a simulated eye-tracking study of your web site

Because in-person eye tracking can be expensive (depending on the technology, number of participants and facility) simulated eye-tracking algorithms were created as a low-cost alternative.  These simulated tools in theory replicate a human eye-track based on object location, white space, contrast, size, etc. of objects on a page. This information can be used to infer where potential issues with typical visual paths are, and to make changes that seek to optimize tracking resulting in increased conversion and sales.

Because they are so cheap and relatively easy to perform, simulated eye-tracking can provide data almost immediately.  Test pages with changes in object location or graphical treatment can be run through the same test to determine if the changes improved the visual path.

As with in-person eye-tracking studies, opponents claim this is all a load of dingo’s kidneys (hat tip to Douglas Adams) and that not only is the “why” of user behavior data missing, so is the user.

Pros: Provides a low cost and fast alternative to human eye-tracking studies.  Data can be used to evaluate potential usability issues with object placement or graphical treatment.  New versions of placement or graphics can be tested quickly and compared against the original set to evaluate the potential usability improvement.

Cons: Does not use real users, instead uses algorithms to simulate typical human eye-tracking responses to objects on a page.  Does not capture the “why” of behavior.  Dependent on the skills of the evaluator in analyzing results and making optimization recommendations.

Conclusion: 7 ways to increase your web site sales with usability

As with Batman’s tool belt, it usually takes one or more tools used for specific means to provide the best usability testing results.  This is certainly true when dealing with the 7 usability testing tools mentioned above.  By using the correct tool or tools an eCommerce site can be evaluated and usability improvements can be made, which improves the conversion and thus sales of the site.