At TechCrunch’s Geek ‘n Rolla event last week, I managed  to have a quick chat with Leisa Reichelt from Disambiguity, following her great presentation about “Why you can’t NOT afford good user experience”. 

Although the presentation was geared up towards digital start-ups, our conversation crossed over into the fact that usability is often overlooked by most small business with an online presence, usually due to a combination of a lack of understanding, time and resources. 

Using a professional usability company will always be extremely beneficial, however, smaller businesses often struggle to meet the costs involved and neglect to take the user experience into consideration. Ultimately, this is more than likely to have a negative impact at a later date on numerous factors, such as bounce or conversion rates. 

It’s been proven time and time again, that the smallest changes made as a result of examining a site’s usability can have a large-scale, highly positive impact.

With this in mind, usability should not be ignored. Here are ten tips to inexpensively improve user experience. 

1. Back to basics

Ensure that the basic functionality of your site meets your online objectives. Do this by identifying the goals you want to measure: Do you want a user to buy a product? Sign up for a newsletter? Book an appointment?

Focus on the main goals that the user is trying to achieve. This will prevent you from wasting time and resources on secondary aspects of your website and allow you to identify the steps the user takes to reach your primary objectives. Then you can begin to establish if these steps can be simplified or made more prominent. 

2. Use your imagination

Create a persona. Lots of people recommend this, but very few seem to practice it, possibly because it seems a little bit crazy. However, I can assure you that it’s not. Imaginary personas of your website’s core demographic will help you be able to build and understand the site from a user’s perspective. 

This can be done either before or after you’ve undertaken research into your website but ideally, you should be referring to your imaginary user (or users) constantly through the process of establishing a usability cycle. Be extremely careful not to stereotype though, as this will lead to problems. 

3. Test from your desk

Technology is a wonderful thing. If you want to test some real-life users, you can save time and money by doing it remotely from your desk.

Use a phone to talk to participants whilst using screen-sharing software to see what they’re doing and how they respond; there are many inexpensive, effective products, such as Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, that exist within this marketplace. These will allow you to conduct either real-time, face-to-face tests from a different location to your user, or to set up an automated, un-moderated test and simply collect the results when it’s convenient for you to do so. 

4. Design, don’t build

You should consider hiring the best designer you can, as quickly as possible but instead of getting them to build or redesign your site, ask them to create a visual style-guide. This can provide a basis for current work and will give you a design roadmap for the future. 

Use it as a template when considering usability changes. This way, colours and typography won’t be compromised during any overhaul that may result from user-testing and will ensure your site remains consistent throughout. This in itself will instantly help improve the user-experience.

5. Kidnap someone

Actually, don’t kidnap anyone. This merely refers to Steve Krug’s idea of a “trunk test” from his book Don’t Make Me Think. He parallels a form of testing against blindfolding someone, putting them into the boot (or if you’re American, the trunk) of a car and driving them around for a while to some random place, before letting them out. 

The equivalent of this in usability terms is to collect screen shots from your site or interface and ask as many people as quickly as possible to answer questions about them. This is a form of blind testing; you’re placing something unseen in front of people and asking them to identify where they are, which will help you understand how easily people can recognise and navigate your site. 

6.  Use fewer users

Definitely a no-brainer. The less people you use to test, the more time and money you’ll save. For some reason, a lot of people seem to think you need dozens, if not hundreds, of testers to get good insight into the usability of a site. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. The ideal number of users to test on is five, according to Jakob Nielsen, so if you’re strapped for resources, follow his advice. 

7. Location, location, location

Where you carry out usability testing will dictate how much you spend. As has already been discussed, you can test remotely from your desk, but if you feel the need for a real face-to-face test, let users into your office.

If, for whatever reason, your offices are unsuitable then (depending on your demographic) you can be innovative as needed. Grab people in the street, meet pre-selected users in cafes. These places are a lot less expensive than hiring purpose-built testing labs but will still help indicate the areas that need improving to you.

8. Be a boy scout

Always be prepared. This is a major element to successful usability testing and all the more important if you’re looking to conserve resources. 

Ensure you have the right questions to ask users, the relevant equipment for them to see or use and that you have the means to accurately record their responses; whether it’s a camcorder or a notebook. 

Equally, be prepared for negative results. You may not like what you hear, but if you’re prepared for them to come your way, it’ll soften the blow and help you work on fixing them. 

9. Research and rationalise

In order to prepare, you need to know what you’re preparing for. Understand what you’re trying to achieve from any usability activities. Again, this falls down to understanding your primary online objectives. 

Fully research your options before testing or analysing. This will allow you to identify the best route to take and is likely to prevent problems from happening later down the line. 

10. Review consistently 

Don’t be complacent – there’s always room for improvement, even with restricted resources, so keep looking at your user experience.

Although nothing can replace the professional expertise or resources that an established usability company is able to offer, even if you are unable to meet their costs, there’s absolutely no reason to not take usability into account as an important part of your online strategy.