5 Usability Tools You Should Be Using Right NowUsability often gets short-changed. It’s not, as some would have you believe, something that common sense and some development skills can guarantee.

Ensuring your site becomes, and remains, usable requires a commitment to a process – a cycle of intelligence gathering, diagnosis, and web site changes. As that process recurs, the idea is that bounce rate for navigation pages will go down, task accomplishment rate will go up, and a range of other usability-tied metrics will keep improving.

Common sense helps, but it doesn’t really get you that far. To keep your site usable, you need to understand what your users are trying to do on the site, and you need to know if your changes are helping them do that. For that, you need specialized tools.

1. Finding Failed Tasks: iPerceptions

iPerceptions is a survey tool you can attach to your site. Yes, that’s right – survey tools are usability tools. Surveys help you understand some of the most fundamental things that happen on your site. Qualitative data, unlike the data you get from quantitative tools like Google Analytics or Site Catalyst, tells you about tasks:

  • Tasks: What are users trying to accomplish on your site?
  • Task Accomplishment Rate: For the tasks that they are performing, how successful are they?

Once you know the tasks that people are trying to do most, and where your lowest success rates are, you’ll have a better idea about what’s broken on your site. Don’t worry too much that there’s something broken – every site has something. As Steve Krug, the author of Don’t Make Me Think, says, there are far more usability issues on any site, than marketers have the time to fix them.

The idea is to catch the worst offenders early, and often, with survey tools.

2. Observing Failed Tasks: User Replay

Once you have a basic idea about where in the site people are failing their tasks the most, what you’ll need to do next is to diagnose that section of the web site. What is it about your main product page that makes it tough for visitors to drill down to what they need? What is it about your landing page that makes people leave?

That’s where tools like User Replay come in handy. Tools like this one allow you to watch visitors on your web site – with the replays, you’ll be able to observe what the commonalities are between people who fail to find what they need. From there, you should be able to create some basic recommendations about what to change on the page.

3. Prototyping Better Sections: Clue

After observing users fail, what you’ll want to do next is create basic prototypes. Prototypes capture the essence of the changes you want to make, but without the full functionality – these can be images done on Photoshop rather than HTML, jQuery, and whatever else your site runs on.

The reason for this is that before you invest in the coding required to add functionality, you’ll want to make sure your ideas will not, in turn, break another part of the user experience. After all, Photoshopped images of your changes are cheap, coding and testing are not.

Software like Clue helps you validate your ideas by providing a 5-second test. You want to make sure as you develop prototypes that the things you want highlighted are the same things people remember – Clue does this by showing a page or prototype to a select group of people, and then asking them what they remember about the page.

4. Observing Visitors Who Use Your Prototypes: What Users Do

If there are no issues with what people remember, you’ll want to ask people to use a more advanced version of your prototype. You can take the time to actually build the page, but in a more contained environment, and then have people use it.

What Users Do allows you to watch users as they perform tasks in an environment that can be separate from your live site. This will allow you to validate that the section performs before you push the pages to the live version of your site, and the rubber hits the road.

5. Split Testing Improved Pages: Optimizely

This is it – the final stretch. To ensure that you’re getting the most out of the process, you’ll want to run split tests on the live sections you have improved to refine them, for improvements on things like bounce rate, exit rate, and click-throughs to your calls to action.

Optimizely is a widely used tool in this arena. It allows you to create a champion page, a challenger page, and then have them go head to head to see which page meets your key performance indicators better. The better-performing page gets to stay, and then the process starts over.

Projects versus Processes

By the time you’re split testing something on Optimizely, you will have already observed something on iPerceptions – one of your other sections will probably need some work done. This is why usability is more of a process than a project – you’re never done. Unlike with projects, there’s no end date. All there is, is a series of related tasks, and a set of tools, that incrementally improve the user experience.

But if you do use similar tools to the five mentioned above, and you understand the process, you’ll get why common sense is nowhere near good enough when it comes to usability. And all the marketers who believe common sense is all they need, you’ll leave them in the dust as they wonder what happened.