Have you ever thought about doing usability testing for your site, or had any done?

Usability testing is, essentially, testing to find out how people use your site. During usability testing, users in a controlled testing situation complete specific tasks while observers watch, listen, and learn. There are many kinds of usability testing, some extremely simple and some very complex, but they all help in the same way: They allow you to see what works for your users and what doesn't.

And finding out what does and doesn't work is crucial, because users seldom act in ways we expect them to. They may not be able to find the content that they want. The organization may confuse them. And, maddeningly, they might not even see all that beautiful content you had beneath the "fold"—the part of the Web page they'd have to scroll down to see.

In her presentation to the DOE, Ginny Redish suggested always doing usability testing both at the prototype and the production phases of a project. This way you can identify problems in a design before you go through the trouble of coding it. She also suggested that you follow up on the project after it is live, by gathering information after the site has gone live and fixing any problems that turn up.

Now, the actual process of usability testing is much too deep to get into for a single post, but if you're interested in learning more about different types of usability testing, see these overviews from Usability.gov:

  • Prototyping: Paper Prototyping is a cheap-and-easy way to find flaws in the way your site is organized.
  • Usability Testing: Full-blown usability testing can be very in-depth, but can provide invaluable information about how your site functions.

If you don't have time to do usability testing, you can always focus on making your page more usable. Pay attention to the way you use elements like PDFs, search tools, and links. While the Communication Standards provide guidelines for all of these, Brian Lamb also had some suggestions when he analyzed the EERE Web site:

  • Use PDFs appropriately. PDFs are not meant to be read online. They're designed so people can print out the content and read it offline later. If your content is not designed to be printed out, or you want it read quickly and easy, don't post that content as a PDF.
  • Think about search. Use the same vocabulary that your readers use. Don't use your own business's professional jargon. Your users have their own vocabulary that they use to find information on your site, and if you use these words too then your readers will find what they're looking for.
  • Don't post ANY content that isn't written for the Web.
  • Make your links clear. Tell users when they're being taken off the site. Link to the exact page that provides the information you're looking for—and tell people clearly in the text of the link where they're going and what they'll find.

So what do you think? Be sure to leave a comment with your thoughts, and check back occasionally to see what other people have said!