User testing (also called usability testing) is an incredibly useful tool in the marketer’s arsenal that’s based on a simple premise: if you want to know how well your website works, watch someone use it.

User testing is better than surveys or focus groups because you get to see how people actually use your website. Don't overlook website user testing as a tool for continuing improvement through iterative design.

Here's how a usability test works:

  1. You determine what tasks you'd like users to perform on your site.
  2. You choose your target demographic or personal characteristics of your audience for the test.
  3. Run the test using a remote usability testing service, or in your office or usability lab.
  4. Analyze the results and improve your website.

Once a test is complete, you receive back videos from users performing your test. You can hear their voice as they comment on your website, and you can see their mouse move across the screen. Some user testing vendors will allow you to ask a few questions at the end of the test, too. If you're conducting remote testing online, you'll often get test videos back in just a day or two.

You’ll learn things about your own website that you never considered. But did you know that you can make it even more valuable by taking one additional step?

Test your competitor's website

Yes, that’s right: test your competitor’s website.

Often, gaining an edge on the competition is as simple as seeing what they're doing well and emulating their success. Here's how you can do that using or a similar service:

  • Set up identical testing scenarios on your site and your competition's website.
  • Determine which experience the user preferred and why.
  • Ask how their preferred site could be improved.
  • Ask what the test participant would change about the less-preferred site.

What does this simple process accomplish? Several things.

First, you're gaining an outside perspective on two things you're probably too myopic to see clearly: the strengths of your competition's website and the weaknesses of your own. A healthy SWOT analysis never hurt anyone, but sometimes we need a third party to keep things objective.

Second, you're actually watching a user navigate both sites independently. You can watch as their mouse pointer moves across the page, and you can hear their thoughts as they try to accomplish the task you've requested.

This should bring to light some key insights. For example, if you're testing a call to action – downloading a free white paper, let's say – you might notice that the user is able to locate and click on the white paper download option in under three seconds on your competitor's website, but it takes over eight seconds to locate yours. Right away, you have a specific task for your designer to tackle: make my call to action more visible.

Third, you get expert advice from a member of your target market: suggestions for improvement from someone you want to like and use your site. It's almost like asking, “What can I do to convince you to buy from me?” without the awkwardness of actually saying that.

In combination with solid design, high-impact content, flawless functionality, and rigorous monitoring of the analytics, user testing can be that extra nudge that helps you give your website visitors a better experience and perhaps more customers.

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