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Want A Flawless Site?
By Bob McElwain

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How often have you heard a webmaster say, "I just need more hits?" How many times have you said this yourself, maybe right out loud?

While more targeted traffic always helps, generating it means wasted effort to the degree your site does not accomplish its purpose. That is, until it performs flawlessly. Advertising, for example, may fail simply because your site is mishandling too many of the hits generated.

So before launching further promotional efforts, look to your site. Take a close hard look at everything about it. Your objective is to improve overall performance. This is the best starting point on your path to increased sales.

Can You Handle Some Pain?

Want to discover some truly awesome flaws in your site? Want to look reality square in the face? If you have broad shoulders, try this.

Sit down beside a person interested in what your site offers. Sit close, but back about a foot. You want to be able see the screen and watch the hands and body language. But you do not want to chat. Instead, you'll be busy taking notes. And for sure you do not want to make suggestions, for you want to observe whatever struggles emerge.

Ahead of time, prepare a list of clearly defined tasks. Include suggestions of a mind set. Things like, "Okay, you're in a hurry, but you'd like to buy a 'name of item' right now, if it sounds like a good deal." Develop others from which you can select as the session continues. It may be appropriate at some point to simply ask, "Can you find such-and-such?"

Ask all to try an order, whether or not there is any interest. See if subscribing to the newsletter grabs attention. Maybe ask, "Would you like to tell a friend about this site? Can you do so?" Build this list with care and be sure your wording does not mislead. For a real eye opener, ask them to find something that isn't on the site.

Never Offer Help

When the tester stumbles, restrain yourself. Don't jump in with a kind word to ease the situation. Just take a deep breath, swallow, make note of where the "fall" occurred, then observe intently what the person does to resolve the dilemma.

Do this right, and you'll find it a truly humbling experience. Here you are with a site you thought was perfect. Yet here's a person stuck real good. Stay alert, now. For he or she will likely stumble even further, trying to get back on track.

Note the difference between your tester and future visitors. Your tester will try to work through it. Your visitors will exit.

How To Find Your Testers

This is the hard part. You want people who are as much like your target as possible. Yet this can only be approximated. And it's hard to find people willing to participate. Thus you may be forced to take people clearly off target.

Teenagers are not good candidates for this kind of testing. They are aggressive, unafraid, and could care less. (But do grab hold of a couple, if you want to see if your system can be broken! Teenagers thrive on such a challenge.) You want testers who can at least try to put themselves into a frame of mind you expect your visitors to have.

Church and grocery store bulletin boards may work for you. Or a brief announcement in a meeting of a local organization, preferably in person. If your target is a business person, hunt up someone with a business; you can test during business hours without undo interruption.

What works best for me is to ask people to call, or give me a phone number. When I connect with somebody I feel can help, I offer fifty dollars for a half-hour of time. Not as payment. Just as a way of saying, "Thanks." Note I don't offer money up front, for it doesn't draw the kind of person who can help.

I also go to them. There are three gains.

      > The timing suits them.
      > They are more comfortable in familiar surroundings.
      > I get to see yet another system.

The latter is always enlightening.

I find that when testers get into things, they'll often pound away for a couple of hours. Do this right, and you'll come out of such sessions shaking your head in near despair. You'll be exhausted, likely needing to cope with rivulets of sweat.

If you haven't tried this approach, you may scoff at the notion. Still, I suggest you give it a try. As a programmer, I've used this method effectively to improve my programs 10 times over. Often from working with only 4 or 5 people. I've had equal success in testing websites.

Usability On The Cheap

What you are doing with this sort of testing is a modest usability study. Experts might scoff at such meager efforts. But this is about as far a small business can go.

In sit-down testing, many of the fine points will be overlooked. But most of what really matters is available from body language. Hesitations in entering keystrokes or clicking with the mouse are easily noted. When your tester leans closer to the screen, it may suggest content hard to read, difficult to follow, or at least something that interrupted the flow.

Work through this process with even a couple of people, and you'll quickly discover how to spot the clues to elements in your site that need a second look.

And the words matter. Not yours, for you have nothing to say. But those your tester speaks offer clues of pure gold. Ignore compliments or positive comments of any kind. What you seek are clues to inadequacy.

Give this notion a try and you'll discover a bunch of stuff about your site that needs rethinking. Make some fixes, and you'll quickly improve site performance significantly. Then, if you're up to it, find another tester.

About the Author

Abstracted from "Secrets Of A Really Successful Website"

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