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Internet Marketing and Web Development in Higher Education and other tidbits…

User Testing: You are not your users

23 Aug 2011

written by Nick DeNardis

User Testing: You are not your users

This post is cross-posted from the Wayne State Web Communications blog. I try to keep WSU specific examples on that blog but since this topic has a wider goal I thought it was necessary to share with a larger audience. The topic is essencial in my opinion for every Web worker to know and practice.

A majority of people assume a Web page is just a digital piece of paper, but in reality it is just a single step in an entire experience. I will use the illustration below to show how every page is connected to another. The illustration can be looked at in two ways. Most people within an organization tend to think a visitor travels from the inside (homepage) out to the edges. But in reality the visitor is more likely to start on a random spot within the system and then figure out what their next step should be. They don’t have a heads up display (like in a video game) that they can pull up at any time to see where they are in relation to everything else. It is up to the information architect and the designer to give the visitor visual cues and sign posts to orient them within the first ten seconds.

1893884585 3d086f55e3 User Testing: You are not your users

Every site is unique

Since no two sites have the same goals and end user needs, the only way to optimize your site is to look through the eyes of your users. For us, we often find insights when we aren’t looking for them. We have been trying to optimize our current students page for some time now. It’s taken us a little longer to figure out than expected, but for a good reason.

I wanted to share our experience with everyone, not as a how to, but as an insight into a process that I think every Web worker should be aware of.

Passive user testing

There are two ways to test your site’s effectiveness. Formal user testing is when you recruit a specific type of user and have them complete pre-defined tasks or watch them use your site in a controlled environment. Passive user testing is when you watch the user in their native environment and they’re unaware their actions are being analyzed. Both have their pros and cons, but both are necessary for a well rounded analysis of a website. I am going to focus on passive testing for the purpose of this post because it’s something everyone should be doing all the time.

Everyone knows Google Analytics is the most popular way to analyze your users passively. But you shouldn’t stop there, GA can only tell you so much. Figuring out what your visitor’s motivations and goals are takes time and experience, being aware of where your users are going is just the first step. You can’t just look at one GA report and know what is right and wrong about your site, it takes analysis over the course of a few months with many different tools.

Motivations of a current student

We knew the “Current Students” menu item was the second most clicked menu item from our homepage, “Directory” is the most clicked. We had a hunch about the motivations of current students but we had to know for sure. We set up CrazyEgg on the current students page to see where they were clicking. CrazyEgg tracks both “active” clicks on links and clicks made on things that are not links. We knew they were looking to get to resources as quickly as possible, Pipeline, Calendar, Email, Blackboard and Course Schedule.

current older cropped User Testing: You are not your users

What we discovered is “Pipeline” was by far the most popular link. But it stumped us a little bit because we have a direct log in to Pipeline, Blackboard and Email right from the header of every page on so the user doesn’t have to click through to find the links. Obviously not enough students knew about it.

header expanding User Testing: You are not your users

Give the user a hint

So we decided to give the current student a hint about the drawer and the log in ability to see if we could change behavior and drive more traffic through the form instead of clicking the link and waiting for the log in page. We changed the page to drop the drawer down for five seconds then back up to “preview” to the user what is hidden up in the header.

current before after dropdown 1024x288 User Testing: You are not your users

As you can see from the heat maps above the “hint” didn’t change the user’s behavior significantly. Only 3 percent of visitors changed their behavior and used the form once they knew it was there. We ran the tests for an equal amount of time on the same days of the week to ensure we were getting as close to the same population as possible.

Don’t hide important elements

Going back to the drawing board we decided to re-organize the entire page and just plop the log in form right in front of the user. We knew students wanted to log in to these services and we just hated the fact they were going through so many steps to do it.

current page new 1024x817 User Testing: You are not your users

Above is the re-aligned current students page. It has almost all the same information on it, just re-organized. We did drop the news and events because they were getting less than 1 percent of the clicks on the page and replaced it with some of our social media activity to make students aware where we were. All the links are in alpha order above the fold to allow for the easiest of access. Previously we had the links split up based on perceived importance.

current login initial heatmap User Testing: You are not your users

We tested the page yet again with CrazyEgg. Success! 20 percent of visitors used the form to log in directly to the service of their choice. We were happy and were about to call it a day, but then we noticed something interesting. The “Current Students” menu item was being clicked by 5 percent (257 clicks) of visitors. Looking into it further we determined it was not only being clicked by users who entered directly on the current students page but also by people who came from our homepage.

Why would users click on a menu item right after they clicked on it to get to the page?

Orientating your visitors

Regardless where your visitors come from they should be able to orient themselves within two seconds of viewing a page. We noticed with the re-aligned page we had moved down the page title and the menu item wasn’t being highlighted to show the user a “state” of it being selected. So we decided to test making the menu item selected to see if it changed the user’s confidence and that they were on the page they expected to land on, the one specific to current students.

current login non selected cropped 300x175 User Testing: You are not your userscurrent login selected cropped 300x175 User Testing: You are not your users

What do you know, it worked! I didn’t think it would have the impact it did but when the menu is selected only 1 percent (59 clicks) clicked on it. In addition the log in form gained another 1 percent of visitors using it.

You are not your users

Time and time again I have to remind everyone making Web decisions that they are not the primary user of their site. Like the illustration at the beginning of this post there are two ways to view the same information. Inside out or outside in. The more you can understand the way your users view your site the more you can understand their motivations and make it easier for them.

User testing isn’t an exact science nor is there a magic formula or tool to use. It takes persistence, patience and insight, but in the end the time spent is worth it.

The content of this post is licensed: ©2011 All Rights Reserved

About the author

Nick DeNardis

Nick is the Associate Director of Web Communications at Wayne State University by day. By night he hosts the video blog EDU Checkup where he reviews higher education web sites live. Nick is an active member of the higher education web community and is an officer of Refresh Detroit, a group of web professionals whose goal is to promote web standards, usability, and accessibility.

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