How To Obtain a Flawless Site
By Bob McElwain

Want to discover some truly awesome flaws in your site? Want to look reality square in the face? If you have broad shoulders, and can handle some pain, try this.

Sit down beside a person interested in what your site offers. Sit close, but back about a foot. You want to be able see the screen and watch the hands and body language. But you do not want to chat. Instead, you'll be busy taking notes. And for sure you do not want to make suggestions, for you want to observe whatever struggles emerge.

Prepare a list of clearly defined tasks. Include suggestions of a mind set. Things like, "Okay, you're in a hurry, but you'd like to buy a 'name of item' right now, if it sounds like a good deal. "Develop others from which you can select as the session continues. It may be appropriate at some point to simply ask, "Can you find such-and-such?"

Ask all to try an order, whether or not there is any interest. See if subscribing to the newsletter grabs attention. Maybe ask, "Would you like to tell a friend about this site? Can you do so?"

Build this list with care and be sure your wording does not mislead. For a real eye opener, ask them to find something that isn't on the site. When the tester stumbles, restrain yourself. Don't jump in with a kind word to ease the situation. Just take a deep breath, swallow, make note of where the "fall" occurred, then observe intently what the person does to resolve the dilemma.

Do this right, and you'll find it a truly humbling experience. Here you are with a site you thought was perfect. Yet here's a person stuck real good. Stay alert, now. For he or she will likely stumble even further, trying to get back on track.

Note the difference between your tester and future visitors. Your tester will try to work through it.Your visitors will exit.

How To Find Your Testers

This is the hard part. You want people who are as much like your target as possible. Yet this can only be approximated. And it's hard to find people willing to participate. Thus you may be forced to take many clearly off target.

Teenagers, while quite willing, are not good candidates. They are aggressive, unafraid, and could care less. You want testers who can at least try to put themselves into a frame of mind you expect your visitors to have.

Church and grocery store bulletin boards may work for you. Or a brief announcement in a meeting of a local organization, preferably in person. If your target is a business person, hunt up someone with a business; you can test during business hours without undo interruption.

What works best for me is to ask people to call, or give me a phone number. When I connect with somebody I feel can help, I offer fifty dollars for a half-hour of time. Not as payment. Just as a way of saying, "Thanks." Note I don't offer money up front, for it doesn't draw the kind of person who can help.

I also go to them. There are three gains. I find that when testers get into things, they'll often pound away for a couple of hours. Do this right, and you'll come out of such sessions shaking your head in near despair. You'll be exhausted, likely needing to cope with rivulets of sweat.

If you haven't tried this approach, you may scoff at the notion. I suggest you give it a try in any case. As a programmer, I've used this method effectively to improve my programs 10 times over. Often from working with only 4 or 5 people. I've had equal success in testing sites.

The Manner Of Usage Is Always Unexpected
From the moment you begin the design of a site, you have a plan for how it will be used. You must. Else pages will not be interconnected. There will be little flow from page to page. And the site will lack a strong central core. Once given a plan, it's easy enough to follow it. And to make sure at each step you are on course.

What such sit-down testing provides is clear demonstration of something we already know: People do not view or use our site in the way we expected them to. They don't "see" our plan. And most wouldn't follow it if they did.

Usability On The Cheap
What you are doing with this sort of testing is a modest usability study. Experts might scoff at such meager efforts. But this is about as far a small business can go.

In an all out campaign by larger firms with the budget to handle the task, selection of testers is a big item. The process is rigorous and costly. And the best testing is done in a laboratory setting, with a vast array of sophisticated tools. As an example, eye movements can be tracked to easily point to elements that create uncertainty, confusion, rejection, and so forth.

In sit-down testing as described above, many of the fine points will be overlooked. But much of what really matters is available from body language. Hesitations in entering keystrokes or clicking with the mouse are easily noted. When your tester leans closer to the screen, it may suggest content hard to read, difficult to follow, or at least something that interrupted the flow.

Work through this process with even a couple of people, and you'll quickly discover how to spot the clues to elements that need a second look. And the words matter. Not yours, for you have nothing to say. But those your tester speaks offer clues of pure gold. In general, ignore compliments or positive comments of any kind. What you seek are clues to inadequacy.

What Usability Means
Usability means different things to different people. For some webmasters, it's sufficient if visitors can get an order placed, regardless of the number of stumbling points. Or how bad the stumbles are. Or even how many sales are lost. This view is quite common.You can see this unconcern on many sites.

But there is gross error in such a view. It does matter where your visitors stumble. For once identified, the point can be smoothed over so that future visitors do now falter. Or at least you can get it cleaned up well enough that few do so.

At the very least, a visitor who stumbles is annoyed. And accumulated annoyances bring exit at some point.

About the Author:
Abstracted From "Secrets To A Really Successful Website" by Bob McElwain

Bob McElwain, author of "Your Path To Success." How to build ANY business you want, just the way you want it, with only pocket money.

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