Can You Find Me Now? Web Usability Audits

  • Are you regularly disappointed with the results of your online campaigns?
  • Does your organization keep missing your Web traffic and engagement goals?
  • Are users consistently bailing out of key transactions before completing them?
  • Did you have to hire an extra staff person to deal with all the calls and emails from constituents who can’t find things on your Web site?
  • Is your site a victim of “suburban sprawl,” as additional elements keep getting bolted onto a navigational structure that was never designed to support them?
  • Are you thinking about a complete redesign but don’t know where to start?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, it might be time to consider doing a Web site usability audit.

In an ideal world, usability testing should follow on the heels of the design process as part of any site launch, but in the excitement of the new design and the rush to get the site up and running, it’s often overlooked.  Even if your organization performed thorough usability testing at launch, you need to take a critical look at your site from the perspective of how it works as opposed to how it looks periodically to guarantee it’s still working as it should.  The more vital your Web site is to your organization’s business goals, the more frequently you need to do this (, for instance, does significant usability testing every single day).

I recently had the opportunity to talk with two of Beaconfire’s usability experts, functional analysts Amy Knox and Brad Lehman, to learn a little more about the usability testing process.

We sometimes see a problem I compare to ‘urban sprawl’,” said Brad.  “Initial site design usually packages organizational information and visuals neatly, but then you start adding more content, which the initial design may not accommodate well.  More and more information ends up getting put somewhere creative. And after several exceptions are made, the design often starts to get cluttered, too.  Result:  nobody can find anything.”

Brad and Amy concurred that they really enjoy doing usability audits for organizations.  “I really enjoy conducting audits,” remarked Amy.  “Not only do they provide a great opportunity for an organization to take a step back, assess the strong and weak points of their online programs, and perform a deliberate, systematic study of how to address them, but we usability experts get to learn about the goals and operations of the organization.  That’s the most interesting part of consulting – being exposed to whole new worlds through partnering with our clients.”

However, in order for an audit to be successful, the organization does need to bring an open mind.  “We sometimes end up recommending an organization conduct an audit, even thought we were originally hired to do something in one of our other service lines.  It’s the most efficient way to pinpoint key usability problems,” noted Amy.  Brad agreed, “Organizations need to set ego aside and be open to hearing usability recommendations.  Every site is somebody’s baby, but, like kids, sites change over time.  Decisions that made good sense two or three years ago may not still be the best approach today.”

Both usability experts pointed out that, when the Beaconfire audit team delivers those recommendations to a client, they’re designed to ensure that the organization will enjoy some quick successes.  “We try to categorize our recommendations by how easy or difficult they’ll be to implement and the level of impact they’ll have,” explained Amy.  “Many times, the client then asks us to help them implement the recommendations.  So we start with changes that will have a high impact and are easy and inexpensive to implement.  This lays the groundwork of trust and partnership that will allow us to work together as a unified team to attack some of more costly or difficult changes later on.”

What advice do Brad and Amy have for organizations that are considering usability audits?

“The right approach is key,” Brad pointed out.  “Before an organization starts a usability audit, they need to ask how well the site is currently performing and how they know.”  And, as Amy noted,” Recognizing that your site has problems is half the battle.  If an organization can identify the critical tasks or areas of their online program that are not performing up to their expectations ahead of time, it allows us to work far more efficiently and be far more effective than if we’re just asked to ‘look at everything.’”

Amy also advised, “An organization needs to be prepared to develop a long term relationship with their usability vendor (which we hope will be Beaconfire!).  Web usability is not a ‘one-and-done’ process – it needs to be ongoing.”

And finally, according to Brad, “Do it. Even thinking about usability means you’re going in the right direction.  Remember, every single site has at least one thing that can be improved, and a usability audit is how you find out what.  Your constituents will thank you for improving their online experience with your organization.”

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