17 July 2007

Usability Testing - TechSmith Morae Product Review

With a significant buzz existing and growing for website optimization methods it makes since that a certain level of interest would exist for things like Usability Testing. Some questions might exist for the people looking to take their site or their business down this road to happiness. These may have something to do with software, scripts (not javascripts but actually scripts which help user and observer navigate through the test and hit on the major issues), importance, value, finding candidates, and even its set up and implementation. The purpose of this blog is to point out the seemingly unlimited value which can be uncovered by performing Usability Tests, provide some insights, and essentially report on our experiences with the TechSmith software called Morae.

I have written about Usability before, there is an article in the blog from May 22 if you want to supplement this article (http://danalytics.blogspot.com/2007/05/usability-testing-driving-office-unity.html)

Usability is the means by which a company or individual can assess user experience on their internet site or internal applications by observing the way in which the subject interacts with them. It can include things as simple as sitting and watching a person use the site in a normal environment or become as complicated as recording eye-tracking, facial responses and audio communication from users in a scientifically controlled environment. In the first case, you may want to get some simple impressions of navigability issues or quick responses to appearance, in the latter, you can extract more detailed insights, however, costs increase as you get more complicated. Some agencies have even begun consulting in this area with the purpose of providing an avenue to these tests when it does not make sense to do this in-house.

At CableOrganizer.com, we're lucky enough to have had the space to create a usability lab. We spent a couple hundred bucks for some paint and some office furniature, and bought a new computer to load up with some software. After taking a look at several of the alternatives, we finally decided to use TechSmith Morae. Morae is a three-part software comprised of a software called the recorder which is loaded on the test machine; the remote viewer, which allows up to four observers to participate in watching and making notes on the file from remote locations; and the Manager, which is the video parsing and editing software which should be installed on your analysts computer or on that person which will be creating the final usability videos. The total cost for the whole she-bang was probably around a couple thousand dollars. Maybe close to $3,000.00 by my estimate plus the cost of the space.

Many people we've spoken to recently, some at the eMetrics Summit in San Francisco were starting to discuss the benefits of usability testing. We haste to push people in that direction for a couple reasons. First, we've experienced its success and value first hand. Using usability tests, we've uncovered problems with our search, navigation, call-to-action, and shopping cart which immediately led to recovering the costs associated with the investment. Second, as internet frequenters, we're quite sick of trying to fumble around and guess what people are trying to present us with for navigation. In other words, trying to get anywhere is impossible unless you are familiar with the site.

As a web analytics and usability practicioner, I have come up with a fairly significant amount of data which may help you in your efforts to increase the ease of your navigation and, in the end, lead to a more positive user experience and higher rate of conversion. Over the past 4 months I have been compiling, analyzing, parsing and re-analyzing dozens of tests performed by all different kinds of subjects which have lead me to these conclusions. Any of these particular issues can help you know where and how to look at your site through your customers eyes:

  1. Focus on the areas of the site which are universal in application by many different types of sites first. Things like your Home Page, On-Site Search, structure, detail pages, shopping cart and every single button which people may or may not click on has a way in which they look and feel to the user. Find out what that is and how yours need to look to make the user feel comfortable. Test and retest until all your methods are producing the positive results which you desire, or can, at least, live with.
  2. Help the user connect to the site. Not all your testing subjects are going to be familiar with your site unless you are a giant. In order to try to get the user engaged in the scenarios and providing greater perspective on the cues and content, try to find a way to relate how your site would fit into some aspect of their life. It will make them feel more confident and comfortable in the test and provide you with more input.
  3. Find candidates with or without a connection to the industry you're in. If you have a site dedicated to one product or subject, it doesn't mean you have to be able to connect them to the ability to yield revelations. Like every medium, there is a great deal of inter-related cues which people react to accross cultures and geography. Occasionally bringing in the 'blind-taste-test' subject can have its virtues for uncovering things which will help to broaden your market.
  4. Pay close attention to when and how people use your search. This is a sweet little side effect of your usability test. You can snag wonderful little keyword combinations which, in the long run, may be very valuable. In addition, you can get a sense of how long each 'Type' of user takes before resigning or executing (depending on the mood of the action) an on-site search. You WILL notice a difference between people who are those who use search and those who submit to search by navigational frustration. If you find that a majority of your usability tests are the latter, you need to try to find and get some data from the former.
  5. Keep users talking. Just sitting and watching is sometimes not enough. When you need to get value out of each and every test, you need to coax continued communication from the subject. The only way you can learn what a customer or subject is thinking is to ask them. On each major action on and throughout the site, ask a question or make a comment that will open discussion on the appearance, or issues concerning what the user is seeing or feeling.

Each of the above, and a great deal more will make your usability testing program produce value minutes after you begin your first test. Adhering to these principles and creating more customized options will help you build a unique set of scripts and paths on which to travel and make huge gains.

In our context, usability is made possible by the use of the Morae software described above. By using this we are able to compile a growing number of tests in a single area with notes on each of the tests by observers. This gives me the chance to provide useful data to the people making decisions on the site in our office, as well as provide some insight to the companies whom we hire to handle certain applications on our site. We have portions of videos compiled together to report on issues which continue to arise for people using our search or shopping cart, or even smaller applications like our reviews.

TechSmith seems to have gotten everything right with Morae. It provides a close to real time interface for observers to add little notes flagged for the manager. It has highlights on things like clicks and other actions on areas of the site. It also includes syncronized audio and PIP video so you can see a screen-shot and simultaneous facial reaction in a single screen. I actually have NO complaints about it and, with a $1300 price tag, I think its worth it for any small internet based business. When your setting it up, you have to test the interface and ensure that the people sitting in on the tests know how to use the little mine-flags, but having said that, there are no other particular issues which our agency has had trouble making use of.

If your thinking about usability, it means your thinking about evolving. With the advent of all kinds of new applications and new site ideas emerging with the next phases of growth, you need to ensure that you are doing everything you can to stamp your footprint into the landscape that is emerging with the new dawn on the internet. Creating even minor obstacles to success in this environment could mean the difference between thriving and extinction. What has always worked for mankind is their propensity for making and using tools. Usability is a tool, much like multivariate testing, statistical analysis, A/B testing, etc. Ensure your survival.....use tools.

If you have any questions or comments about what I've written, please feel free to leave a post. I would be glad to help with any issue which may arise by taking some of our advice or getting involved with products which we have discussed here. I am a full-time web analyst for CableOrganizer.com which means that there are demands on my time and obligations which I must fulfill. My responses tend to run long and stem from time on weekends, so, please, if you write, be patient so that I can ensure my continued employment.

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