website usability testing

Learn from real users: get started with website usability testing today

February 24, 2020 by Tawni Sattler

Website usability is at the heart of customer-centricity. If you give your potential customers a difficult, complex, or broken experience, it’s unlikely they’ll stick with you for long.

Usability testing helps you make sure that visitors can interact with your website without experiencing any friction or obstacles. In this piece, you’ll learn how you can start testing your website’s usability today, with just your computer and a set of software tools. We’ll tell you how you can get quick results, easily—no lab, no extra (expensive) equipment, no outside moderators: just you and your trusty laptop (you can even stay in your pajamas!). We cover:

What is website usability testing?

Website usability testing is a method of observing user behavior to test the design and functionality of a website.

With website usability testing you can learn whether your visitors:

Through moderated and unmoderated techniques (i.e., with or without a facilitator or testing script), website usability testing gives you meaningful and actionable data about how visitors experience your website, so you can make a positive impact on its design and functionality.

Why is website usability testing important?

Your company’s website might be the only point of contact you have with prospects or customers, which makes usability incredibly important: how easy it is for potential customers to accomplish their goals may determine whether they bounce or exit, or stick around and make it through the check-out process.

By testing your site’s functionality, you’ll uncover usability pain points or website bugs users encounter on your site (for example: missing or broken elements, a confusing design, or an ineffective call-to-action), which will lead to opportunities for you to fix them and improve the user experience (UX) (and increase conversions as a result).

You can also take advantage of usability testing to get feedback on changes before you roll them out to your entire customer base—so if a few testers report issues or lack of clarity, you can course-correct accordingly.

Hear it from the expert:

I employ usability testing when I’m looking to gut-check myself as a designer. Sometimes I run designs by my cross-functional squad or the design team and we all have conflicting feedback. The catch is, we’re not always our user so it’s hard to sift through and agree on the best way forward. Usability testing cuts through the noise and reveals if the usability of a proposed design meets basic expectations. It’s a great way to quickly de-risk engineering investment. I also like to iterate on designs as we receive more and more information, so usability testing is a great way to move fast and not break too many things in the process.

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Julia Feld, Product Designer at Hotjar

Different types of website usability tests

usability testing methods chart

Usability testing is an essential step in giving your visitors a smooth online experience (for businesses selling online, this is known as the ecommerce customer journey), but to get the most accurate and actionable results, you have to make several decisions about the type of testing that would be appropriate for your site based on your resources (i.e., time and money), target audience, and research objectives. For example:

Should your usability test be moderated or unmoderated?

Moderated tests are done either in-person or remotely, and are led by a professional moderator who guides and observes participants through the testing process from start to finish. Unmoderated tests are done without a guide or on-site observer, and test subjects can participate from anywhere.

screen usability testing
the opening screen of an unmoderated + scripted test we ran at Hotjar

Can you perform a remote usability test or does it need to be done in person?

Remote tests are done either online or over the phone—test subjects can participate from anywhere, even from their own homes or offices. In-person tests are completed in the presence of a professional moderator who will observe participants’ actions, body language, and facial expressions. These tests are run in a testing lab or office.

live usability testing session at hotjar
our senior editor Fio (right) observing a moderated, in-lab testing session

Should your website usability test be scripted or unscripted?

Scripted usability tests are designed to take people through a set of specific, predetermined steps and tasks to see how they respond to a particular page or set of pages on your site. Unscripted usability tests allow you to observe visitors’ movements and actions on your website while they browse naturally, without guidance or direction.

Session recordings are an example of an unmoderated, remote, unscripted test, and are a very ‘organic’ method of website usability testing as they let you observe anonymized users as they navigate through your pages on their own terms (more on this later).

example of a hotjar recording
Click on the image to see the full recording

Editor’s tip: you can explore the different types of usability tests in more detail and learn how to combine them in our usability testing guide.

Usability testing for an ecommerce site

For ecommerce sites, website usability testing can be especially effective when:

  • Investigating existing performance, for example by reviewing the check-out process and looking for issues or obstacles
  • Launching new site elements on a product or check-out page. For example, how are users interacting with new elements or features? Are they getting stuck anywhere?

Hear it from the expert:

Usability testing helps drive conversion, a vital metric in ecommerce. As one of the largest North American sellers of appliance parts, we need usability testing to uncover the navigation issues people encounter as they attempt to find their desired part on our site. Navigation is crucial because it can hamper the users' path to a successful purchase, but also increase returns and support calls if they end up purchasing an incompatible product. Usability testing effectively ensures that our users can get to the part they need on our site and purchase it with confidence.

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Charles Novabos, UX Researcher at Fix.com

Here are two examples of usability testing methods for ecommerce sites, depending on your resources and goals:

If you have time and room in your budget → try a moderated + in-person test

graphic representing moderated plus in person usability test

The combination of moderated and in-person test types will give you detailed insight and will allow you to ‘go deep’ with your users.

Moderated and in-person usability tests can be done on location in a specialized lab. A professional moderator will walk users through tasks on your site and will observe them during the entire process. Moderators may or may not ask questions during the test itself, but there are pre-screening and post-screening processes so research participants can answer questions about themselves and their experience with the website.

usability testing at hotjar
same image as before, with a bit more detail 😉

While there are several benefits to moderated and in-person tests, keep in mind that they’re expensive and will take a lot of time and commitment on both sides (from you and from your users). Another thing to consider is that the presence of a moderator may influence people's actions on a site.

If you want to get started now → try an unmoderated + remote test

graphic representing unmoderated plus remote website testing

This combination of test types will give you insight into how users interact with your website in their ‘natural environment’, without being watched by a moderator.

Unmoderated and remote usability tests are easy to set up and can return results in a matter of hours or days, depending on your traffic and the scope of the test. These tests are also one of the most affordable usability testing methods because you just need your computer and some specialized software.

Plus, you can start right after you finish reading this article. For free.

If you want to start testing your website’s usability now, Hotjar Session Recordings (aka session replays or visitor recordings) let you watch how real, anonymized visitors use your site. You can see where they move, click, and scroll across multiple pages—and how they interact with page features and elements.

hotjar recording dashboard
Click on the image to play around with a real recording

Getting started is free: sign up for Hotjar and follow these step-by-step instructions.

What to look for when testing your website for usability

graphic representing usability test conducting

Knowing what to look for when you’re testing your site is just as important as the test itself. If you’re going to run a usability test, you need to know why you’re running it: what are you trying to learn from your users?

When you’re testing for website usability, check for your site’s:

  • Efficiency: are users following a clear path on your site or are they having a hard time navigating through a task? Are there blockers or distractions?
  • Effectiveness: are there clear and relevant ‘sign-posts’ so users know where, when, and how to get from point A to point B?
  • Ease-of-use: were users satisfied with the process, page, or experience?

Narrow your focus before testing website usability

Make sure you’re asking yourself the right questions when you plan your usability tests, so you can learn which changes to make to your site.

Consider running section-, page-, or task-based tests, rather than casting too wide of a net: running a usability test on every page of your site without knowing what to look for will return too much data to sort through and will paint too broad of a picture, making it hard to identify the changes to make first.

Here are a few ideas to start with, to narrow your focus and get the answers you need:

  1. Section-based: what does the user’s journey look like from the homepage to a specific sub-section of your site? How did they get from point A to point B?
  2. Page-based: are users finding the information they need on your product pages? Are they clicking on the features or elements that you want them to click on?
  3. Task-based: are customers able to make it from the product page to the shopping cart to the check-out page without difficulty? Are there any blockers or distractions that are confusing them?

5 tips for website usability testing

graphic representing CRO tools

Website usability tests are an effective user-led way to find out how to improve the user experience, but if you don’t plan ahead, you could miss an opportunity to help your users out (which means you could miss an opportunity to increase conversions!).

Here are five tips to get the most out of your tests:

  1. Run website usability tests early on, particularly if you’re planning to redesign your website, and test users’ reactions and interactions with your prototype in its early stages
  2. Test usability regularly to ensure that everything on your site works the way you intended it—especially product and check-out pages
  3. If there are multi-step functions on your site (for example, browse + add to cart + check out), run task-based usability tests to make sure processes are simple, and to make sure the path from point A to point B is clear and easy to navigate
  4. Monitor your sales funnel and the customer journey. Use testing to learn your users’ behavior patterns—how they move on a particular page, how they navigate, how they accomplish a certain task, etc.—and use what you learn to make future decisions
  5. Use on-site surveys in combination with usability testing to learn what users love or hate about certain functions (and why), find out what they think is missing from your site, and get their suggestions on new (or old) features
Use survey questions to improve website user experience.
Example of an on-site survey

In Hotjar, set up surveys on any page(s) you want to investigate further. You can ask current visitors who they are, why they are abandoning the page, or what they think of the website itself:

screenshot of where to set the url for a hotjar poll

Learn how to use feedback surveys and what questions to ask to improve the online customer journey.

Final note

Running a website usability test isn’t a one-and-done solution to all of your UX problems—improving and optimizing your site for your users is an ongoing effort. It will take time, and requires commitment from your whole team.

Start small, but test often. Take it slow—test by one page or one task at a time—you can (and should) expand later. Running small-scale tests at first is a great way to get started with website usability testing, and will be a huge help almost right away: if you use the right combination of methods and tools, you’ll be able to learn which changes to make to your site first, to have the greatest impact on your users.

Start testing website usability now

Get a free Hotjar trial and learn how to improve the user experience based on real user behavior.

Website usability testing
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Tawni Sattler

Tawni is a Content Writer at Hotjar. When she's not writing, you can find her drinking coffee, reading, and talking to her plants.