For any business building a new website, the terms user testing and usability testing might seem like a case of semantics, or even po-tay-to/po-tah-to. However you look at it, everybody is a user of the site. Generally, though, the development team is testing usability. They want to determine how well it works. User testing happens in front of a focus group which provides serious feedback on what they clicked on, and why. The distinction between the two, for all its crossover similarities, is very important.
Testing to Find Vulnerabilities
As a developer, we build a clickable prototype known as a wireframe. This is a site which is free of the logic of a standard website. It doesn't ask you for a login account, for instance. It will, however, serve as a working example of what the finished product will be like. It is also a simpler, and cheaper, place to work the kinks out. While some back-end elements might come into play when we perform usability testing, it's generally front-end issues that the team is concerned with. Interactivity between pages, how the site flows, and its intuitive nature for the first time visitor are what the team is focused on.
User testing follows the usability testing phase, and whichever party is responsible for that '- the client or the developer '- has a set of goals and questions which must be met. Ultimately, though, someone who is a very skilled tester needs a very keen sense of what annoys them. They must be detail-oriented, and fixated on minutia. Some task which was performed on the site may have been very easy, but the skilled tester knows that it could have been easier. Generalists, who are simply satisfied, cannot adequately serve as UX testers. It may be 'fine', but fine isn't going to cut it. 99% of the site's visitors might be able to find an elusive link, but the 1% that can't find it could cost the business tens of thousands of dollars annually. Minor changes brought about by user testing can have a significant impact.
Testing your Competitors' Websites
Studies show that testing your competitors' websites can be very beneficial to any company which is planning a redesign of their site. We always suggest that, from a design perspective, clients look at their competition to see what features they like; but it is also very helpful in exploring the usability features that they are seeking. If you know that your competitor is beating you up in the marketplace because of a component to their website which sets them apart, then the development team must find a way to incorporate something like that on your site '- but better!
Tools for Testing Usability
Usability testing always gets down to having the tools in your toolbox to get the necessary results. We recommend Axure, which is the wireframing tool that we use. It has advanced prototyping and documentation tools built into its more advanced models which allow team members to easily collaborate on a project. At CommonPlaces, the project managers assemble the wireframes, rather than the developers, so we like Axure for being a very user-friendly tool.
There are different heat-mapping tools suited to particular technologies and frameworks, and we use many of them. These enable us to see where users are clicking on a page. Are they looking for a link that they expect to be there, but isn't? Are they clicking on a feature that they particularly like over another? Heat-mapping tools give us that information.
We also use Five Second Test, which is a quick and easy, community based way to test brand messaging and provide valuable feedback. It's particularly helpful in the design phase, because you can see what immediate impressions people have on the overall look of the website.
Finally, there are endless blogs, webinars, and articles on usability which help us keep up with the ever-changing world of User Experience. HubSpot is a great resource for culling out the noise and just supplying us with the most valuable information that's out there.
You can't build a website without thorough testing. Or, well, I suppose you could '- but I certainly wouldn't trust my livelihood to it.