The goal of usability
Before asking yourself about the usability per se, ask yourself “usability for what?”
Example 1: If you have a website that is purely informative and you want your visitors to get information quickly and easily. It should work on both desktop and mobile, and your main usability test should focus on readability, navigation, and speed of accessing the right information via browse and search.
Example 2: If you run an eCommerce site, the conversions will be your main focus. Making sure that your customers can find the right products, find them attractively presented and have an easy time with the checkout is paramount so they don’t get stuck or distracted before the purchase is complete.
There are also more generic usability tests that are more related to UI/UX that all website designers should pay attention to.
In this category you find guidelines on how big a button should be on a mobile device, how far apart buttons need to be, and how to build your site architecture and navigation to help visitors find the right pages.
If you’re creating a custom WordPress theme, you will have much more flexibility to get these things right than if you choose a premium theme. However, the premium theme may have the basics right to begin with, so if you’re not an experienced developer or work with one – maybe that’s a better option for you.
Methods for testing
There are multiple ways of testing your site, and you may find them useful in different stages of website design and development.
First of all, you should be a good reviewer yourself. It’s the quickest and cheapest way to build a better website. Take a step back, maybe pretend that you’re someone else and adopt a persona as recommended by Ezequiel Bruni to make sure you see the site with fresh eyes.
Next, you should always ask someone outside your design and development team, maybe a friend or even your grandmother to make sure you find those things you didn’t think about. Observe them as they use your site, and try not to get involved.
If they fail to understand how to use it – don’t tell them. Instead, think about how you can change the design to ensure +95% will use it correctly on the first attempt.
These two first options are great tests to make in the early phases of your design, and especially if you have a limited budget.
Another way is to consult an expert in UI/UX, who can tell you how your site looks and works as compared to the best practices of the business. Maybe your color scheme will be difficult to use if there’s glare on the screen when reading on your phone in the sunlight. Maybe your square buttons are in theory less click-friendly than round ones.
When you have a final site or draft site ready, there’s a plethora of services online to use. Some are automated to help you detect issues using specifically developed algorithms. Other services online use a network of real testers, where you can specify the target audience of your site and select how many you want to review it.
You pay for their services and get feedback from the testers that can help you predict what a bigger audience will think that are more objective towards it than yourself or your friends and relatives.
Once the site is live, you will want to check your Google Analytics to study user behavior, and potentially use Hotjar to show heatmaps of where people click on your site and recordings of how they use it.
You can also introduce A/B testing to evaluate how alternative designs result in different user behaviors – maybe changing that headline helps people find their way to their favorite product on your site?
What to test
So what is usability and what should you look for on the site? Usability according to Wikipedia is “the ease of use and learnability of a human-made object such as a tool or device.” Your WordPress website would be such a tool or device in this case.
Here are six important aspects of “ease of use” and “learnability” you should pay attention to:
You want your website to help users accomplish what you want them to, as discussed in the introduction. It could be a conversion of some sort (purchase, sign-up, click on an affiliate link) or to find information they were looking for.
Is it easy to find the right pages on your website via the navigation? Are pages linking to each other in a manner that supports your planned user flow?
Is the text on your site readable enough? Look for the contrast of the font color against the background, the font size, and an often forgotten aspect – line length. A general recommendation for line length is 40-75 characters, but many websites have full width sections that become more than twice as long as recommended.
With too long lines, it gets difficult to find the next line when your eyes move from the right to the left edge of the paragraph (or vice versa if you read right to left).
How does your site look on mobile and tablet screens? Your designs may be perfect on desktop, but impossible to use on mobile. Consider providing your development team with guidelines on how your site should look on different screens.
Most visitors are very impatient when it comes to page loading times. Studies show that 25% or more will leave your site before it shows up if the site takes 4 seconds or longer to load. Run it through the pagespeed tester and make sure you’ve done what you can to help reduce the loading time to at least below 2 seconds, preferably around 1 second.
6. Website accessibility:
In order to make websites accessible also for people with disabilities, there are standards for how sites should be designed to be more inclusive. The most common ones are called WCAG and Section 508.
As you design and develop your new website, think about how much time you want to spend on usability testing (probably you should add 50%). Then consider what are the most important aspects of usability for your site in particular, and only after that go look for the right ways to test it.
There are tools and services to help you do it more effectively, and to avoid trusting your own biased judgement. Definitely do ask others to help you, and I’d say at least 5 other people for a typical small site, and the bigger the site the more stakeholders and independent testers should be involved. After launch, see that the actual performance of the site matches your goals and do adjustments accordingly.
And remember: your audience may be looking at the site in all kinds of devices, times of day, and have different technical skills or disabilities that require a bit of extra thought to go into your designs to make it useful for all.