If you’ve been following the website or podcasts over the past few weeks you’ve seen Newman and I dig into the topic of web usability. We approached it, at first, from a philosophical perspective. We talked about the web design process and where web usability fits into it. We found various tools online to assist in doing user tests and we’ve found various models for how to conduct user tests.
And we started to realize something: these models tend to be obnoxiously vague. Even when they make intuitive sense, they still leave the reader with more questions than answers.
I feel like they keep creating iterations of the old Sony business model:
Step 1: Bright idea
Step 2: ????
Step 3: Profit!
It’s Mr. Sony and he’s a naughty kitty!
WTF is Step 2? Nobody I’ve read (and I’ll readily admit that I have much more to read) has articulated a quality strategy for conducting a user test. And all the user test examples I’ve seen have bared this out.
What I’ve noticed is that somebody will develop a model. For example:
I actually like this model. I think it does a good job of describing the steps and grouping the various considerations into each step. But what drives me crazy about it is that it doesn’t compel me to do anything specific. This is a 25,000 foot view of the web ux universe. And as you’ll see, it’s practically the only view these models will present:
Same thing with this model, except in this model, they’re using words and phrases I’m familiar with but use them in ways that are not intuitive and meaningful.
You can look at those two models or even the one we were initially so high on in Monday’s podcast at usability.gov until blood shoots out of your nose and you’ll never get to a better understanding of how to conduct a user test.
What we need to do is cut the chute.
We’re sailing along at 25,000 feet looking at our surroundings. If we were really sky diving we’d see a number of geological formations beneath us: flatland, rivers, mountains, and so on. That’s what’s amazing about being that high up – it’s possible to see how the mountains are connected to the rivers. You see how the rivers feed and nourish the surrounding area because the surrounding area is lush with vegetation and various critters. Finally you see that river find its delta where it meets the ocean. It’s a point-of-view that’s hard to visualize from ground-level.
What it doesn’t do is tell you why there are mountains and rivers; why life crops up around those rivers, or most importantly for this analogy: how to terraform.
This analogy, like life, revolves around water. In this case, a river.
There’s an idea that we’ve previously covered called the critical path.
This idea, for the uninitiated, is extremely simple.
Pictured: A critical path.
A critical path is the path a user must take through your website in order to complete the website’s primary goal.
Visualize it in its most common form: an e-commerce cart. The critical path looks something like this:
FRONT PAGE –> CATEGORY PAGE –> PRODUCT DESCRIPTION PAGE –> CART –> CHECKOUT –> RECEIPT
Now, obviously, it’s not necessary for somebody to start at the front page of a web site to buy something. Furthermore, this might not be the only way that a person could navigate the site that would result in a purchase. But what we just described is a from-the-rooter-to-the-tooter critical path. It’s got a little bit of everything.
If we look at this critical path more closely we can really divide it into two smaller sections based on what the pages do.
When a person buys something, they always go through this process:
Step 1: Find a product to buy
Step 2: Buy the product
Similarly, a website’s critical path can be divided into two sections: pages that help the user find a product and pages that help the user to buy.
I like to think of the pages that fit in Step 1 as FILTERS and the pages that fit in Step 2 as CONFIRMERS.
Let’s look at that critical path again:
Filters: FRONT PAGE –> CATEGORY PAGE –> (SUB-CATEGORY PAGE) –>
Confirmers: PRODUCT DESCRIPTION PAGE –> CART –> CHECKOUT –> RECEIPT
The Front Page, Category Page, (and sub-category pages if necessary) are all filters. Their purpose is to direct traffic to the Product Description page.
The Product Description page is really the beginning of the checkout process. Done right it will either sell the product using pictures, text, and multimedia; or it will confirm the shopper’s good sense to buy that particular product.
From the moment the shopper adds the product to the cart, the only job your website has is to get them into and through the checkout. This part of your website is so important that web analytics packages like Google Analytics include a tool that specifically measures this part of the process. It’s commonly known as a Conversion Funnel or Goal Conversion Funnel.
It looks like this:
Pictured: That part of Google Analytics that you’ve been meaning to mess with.
The action in a conversion funnel is centered around the sales process – as it should be – because we want shoppers to buy the stuff they put in their cart.
But what about those FILTER pages? Where’s their visualization tool?
Web Usability folks have the tools to do the job but they’re rarely considered as tools to measure the effectiveness of how a user filters the information on your site. The tools are the click-maps that visualize where users click on a page. If one has the resources to do an eye-tracking test, then the heat-maps are just as valid a tool but they track the user’s eyes instead of their mouse. It’s the same underlying principal that’s been taken to another level of granularity.
What does this mean for designing a web usability test?
To me, it means that we’re out of the clouds where we talk about the three tiers of goals
Tier 1: Business and User Goals
Tier 2: Site Goals
Tier 3: Page Goals
and into a place where we connect Tier 1 to Tier 3. Once you see it, it’s so obvious it’s hard to imagine that you hadn’t seen it before.
The way you do it is by drawing a path from Step 1/Tier 1 (Goals) to Step 3/Tier 3 (Profit). Because it’s such an important path, one might even call it a critical path.
So you see, now we have the ability to design a user test because now we know the goal of user testing.
The goal of usability testing is to determine the effectiveness of your website’s critical path.
This makes all the sense in the world. The website is a machine built specifically to achieve an objective. User testing needs to be focused around measuring how well the machine achieves the objective.
Now, knowing that, how does that translate into actually designing a web usability test?
Newman will have to speak to that. Fortunately that’s what he’s preparing for Friday.
On Friday, Newman is going to break down for you the basics of creating a user test and how designing a user test around the critical path forces radical deviations from the standard questions that are often found on web usability tests. It’s sure to cause some controversy because for some jacked up reason it seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom.
3 Questions For You
1. What web ux tests have you done and what was its primary goal?
2. Have you ever done a web ux test where evaluating the efficiency of the site’s critical path?
3. Can there be valuable non-critical paths in a website?
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