Usability & user experience 101

There are two big factors in digital marketing success: being found and being good.

Being found comes down to knowing who your potential visitors are, what they’re looking for, and where they’re looking for it. By creating excellent content, optimizing your website and other online collateral, and potentially paying for visibility, you can probably check off the first box (if you’re not at that stage yet, you might want to check out our Search Engine Optimization 101 and Paid Search 101 videos as well).

But is driving traffic to your website really that valuable to you if all they do is take one look, say to themselves “I have no idea what’s going on here/How do I find what I’m looking for/This is ugly…”, and then hit the back button to go off and find your competitors? Whether you’re paying attention to it or not, you are giving your visitors an experience, so you need to make sure it’s a good one.

What is Usability?

The ISO definition of usability boils down to three main components:

  • Effectiveness – can a visitor to your site complete a task successfully?
  • Efficiency – can that visitor complete that task in a reasonable amount of time and without making errors?
  • Satisfaction – is that visitor happy with the interaction they had with your website?

At a fundamental level, this is what you need to provide for visitors to your site. You need to understand what their needs, pains, and goals are so that you can make it easy, quick, and pleasant for them to find a solution.

A couple of additional considerations that support good usability on your site include:

  • Learnability – how quickly can a visitor learn how to use your website?
  • Memorability – when that visitor comes back a second time, do they remember what to do or do they have to learn it all over again?

The problem is that, theoretically speaking, anyone can go out and build/buy a relatively usable website. So how do you differentiate yourself from your competitors in the on-site environment? That’s where user experience comes in.

What is User Experience?

User experience (UX) takes the notion of usable site and meshes it in with a whole bunch of other adjectives:

  • Useful
  • Valuable
  • Credible
  • Persuasive
  • Accessible
  • Desireable
  • The list goes on…

Now you’re looking at creating an on-site experience that makes visitors happy, makes them want to come back, makes them want to share it, makes them feel comfortable interacting with your company… and as I said above, if you’re not currently thinking about UX, there’s a very good chance you might be providing a poor experience and not even know it.

How do you determine what type of experience you’re providing your visitors? Usability and UX audits and testing are the way to go.


A usability/UX audit is usually the first step in assessing your site experience. A few experts with solid backgrounds in UX design and best practices will take a look at your site from the perspective of your visitors and identify areas that pose potential stumbling blocks. They then provide recommendations for how to make changes to your site to support a better user experience.

Typically, however, an audit will only really address the “low hanging fruit” and bring your site up to a best practice level. Best practices are guidelines, not cut and dried truisms, so they need to be moulded to fit the intentions and behaviours of your visitors. And to really understand your visitors, you need to do some testing.


Usability/UX testing involves taking some real or representative visitors to your site and evaluating how they do in accomplishing particular tasks. There are a number of different testing approaches:

In-lab Testing – participants matching your target audience are recruited to come to a research facility and perform carefully scripted tasks under the watchful eye of a moderator. This method lets you get really good qualitative data, because you can interact directly with the participants and really dive into understanding their motivations and behaviours.

Moderated Remote Testing – very similar to in-lab testing, except that the test sessions are conducted via a web conference and conference call. This allows the participant to join the session from their “natural habitat” (e.g., their home or office) instead of in a sterile lab environment, which generally means more realistic behaviour. Remote testing also makes it easier to accommodate different schedules and/or different geographic areas.

Unmoderated Remote Testing – there are number of tools out there now that will allow you to record the interactions people have with your website without having to set up one-on-one test sessions. These tools are often pieces of script that you put on your website, so “participants” are unaware that you’re observing their on-site behaviours. Other tools also let you upload screenshots, prototypes, or information architectures and invite people to interact with them in specific ways and provide feedback to help you improve.

Thinking you need to improve the experience on your site?

If you’re unsure whether your on-site user experience is as good as it could be, or are already doing some usability or UX work but want to dive deeper, get in touch with us – we can help.