A couple of cheap usability tools

photo by felishumanus

So you want to do some usability studies on the cheap. Maybe there is no real budget for it but you feel that you could improve a site with some real world data. Or maybe it is pre-redesign time, where you have to convince your boss that something is really broken and that your company should fix it by devoting or redirecting resources.

As would-be usability experts, I would implore that you should back up your hunches with data. We all get frustrated when the client wants a all-dancing all-singing flash clip on their site for no other reason that they like it. I remember in one of my jobs after my usability study on a recommended redesign strategy my boss tried to fit in a video clip of a spinning logo because it would be a waste not to use it… But if we suspect that a web form is too long and is the reason for the lack of sign-ups, we need to source data to support this, otherwise we would be doing the exact same. There are two ways of doing this, one is split-testing also called a/b testing and the other is user testing or surveys.

Split-testing is where you show two or more versions of a site to your real audience. You then collect data and try to figure out why things are happening in such a way. In the case I mentioned above, you can make your initial form shorter, or you can label the process as step 1 of 3 and see if there are more sign-ups per number of users.

User testing is where you pick out users that fit in with your target audience and let them access your site while you are observing. You may give them a certain scenario or set tasks.

Split-testing is desirable but it depends a lot on your authority and scale of site. If the site is your own, then there is no problem. However if you are just a lowly web monkey and can only offer recommendations then you need to try out user testing.

Two tools I recommend for basic user testing that can help to see if your hunch is right are:

  • Feedback Army
  • Silverback

Feedback Army

Is a web service where you can ask up to 6 questions about your web site, and get up to 50 responses. You can ask questions that test the ease of use or to identify places where the user can get stuck. For example if you are selling a software package and have two versions of it, Pro and Lite. You might ask the respondents if they understand the benefits of buying the Pro version. Or you might ask them to try buying the product or service and note down any problems.

The service is reasonably priced at $15 for 10 respondents and up to $55 for 50.



The other tool is a software application that is only available for Apple Macs, costing $69 per license. It is called Silverback and can be used for usability of web sites and also software applications. It takes advantage of the isight web cameras built into most Apple Laptops and also their iMac range, although in theory you can also use it with Mac Pros and Mac Minis with separate web cameras.

The application lets you record the audio, screen and the user who is doing the tests. This allows you to see the whole experience, see where the user has problems or pauses for a long time. With this tool, you’ve have to recruit the users and bring them into your office or usability testing suite to perform the tests. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It is good if for example you and your company are not English speaking, since you can recruit local community members, most web services like feedbackarmy are English-centric. However you do actually need to advertise and select suitable users which could be costly and time consuming.

And there you have two excellent but fairly affordable tools to add to your armory. Next time I will talk about creating a simple usability survey to make the most of these tools or similar tools. If you have any suggestions of similar tools, please leave a comment and share with our community. Thanks!