There is an ever-urgent need for companies to both acquire and retain online users, especially in today’s economic environment. Our new Usability and User Experience Trends Briefing highlights this, but which is best for achieving reliable results – internal or external testing?

Econsultancy estimates that client-side companies spent around £214m on usability and accessibility during 2008, which demonstrated a massive year-on-year growth rate of around 20%. This is due to an ever-increasing realisation that a commitment to the user experience is a key element to online success.

A recent trend that we’ve noticed is the development of internal testing departments within client companies, rather than outsourcing to agencies. It sounds like a forward-thinking move, but should we be questioning the benefits of this approach?

In-house testing is less expensive than outsourcing in the long run, assuming you do enough of it, and it helps any company to understand how usability fits into their business model. But, although data can generally be collected quickly, there are many barriers to success, such as a lack of industry knowledge (which can make a thorough assessment or understanding of results extremely difficult). Equally, other restrictions such as time, internal issues and conflicts, and a lack of specific technology can hinder a company’s efforts.

By contrast, outsourcing user testing to specialist agencies can deliver the benefit of results being generated in an unbiased environment, with industry specialists who usually have far greater experience and knowledge (along with better resources and the latest testing equipment and related technology). External testing generally has no restrictions placed upon it by the client and as such, results can be gathered quickly and presented accurately.

While internal testing can save money, it sometimes inadvertently cuts corners, meaning that results can easily be affected. Inaccurate data, upon which important decisions are based, which may ultimately damage any overall online performance.

We recognise the value of outsourcing in order to maximise testing, and know that some of the more savvy companies employ usability agencies on a retainer basis to guarantee ongoing testing of their websites. But there’s still some doubt as to whether bringing user testing in-house is a shrewd move. It certainly sounds like a good idea, and many e-commerce managers we know would surely drool at the prospect of their very own testing lab, but is it the smart thing to do?

Other issues surrounding usability, user-experience and accessibility discussed in the briefing include the increased focus on usability as a digital service, differentiating usability and user experience, the cross-over between usability and other digital areas, using analytics to help drive usability and embracing social media and Web 2.0 to enhance user experience. The briefing is available free to all membership levels.