In my last post on website structure I touched briefly on user testing and some suggestions for card sorting tests you can do with your target audience.

So here’s a basic introduction to some different types of testing that you can do at each stage of creating and improving your website.


Before development

When you’re first coming up with a website concept, visual design and layout, a structure and all the rest of it, you don’t need to start developing before you can start doing research. Whether you’re building a website for the first time, or your recreating your existing one from scratch, competitor analysis, card sorting, and wire framing are all useful tools.

Competitor analysis

Assuming there are other business which provide similar services or serve similar customers, you can make use of their websites for your own research. Get your target audience to test competitor websites to find out what they do and don’t like about them, how they’d do things differently, and which aspects they prefer. Because it’s not *your* website they’re criticising, your testers are more likely to be honest about the negatives. And comparing one competitor to another helps you to give different options and perspectives, which can provide more nuanced feedback.

Card sorting

As we talked about in our post on structure earlier this week, card sorting tasks can be really helpful for lots of reasons. They can help you to develop a structure for your site by seeing how your customers group topics together. They also give you insight into the words your customers use to describe things, and draw out areas of confusion and inconsistency in your site content.

Wire framing

Wire frames are simple sketches of your website that show basic layout or functions, without any of the details you’d need a graphic design for. Putting these in front of your target audience will let you see if your customers think the way you do, and use your site the way you’ve planned. Pen and paper are often the simplest tools, but you can get some free software options as well, which allow you to create prototypes showing functionality as well as layout.

MockFlow have a range of different web apps which let you do different parts of the development process, with a basic free plan and good value upgrades.


Pencil is open source and downloadable for Mac, PC and Linux, and it also has a Firefox extension.

During development

As your are developing the code for your website, you can test parts of it before they are finalised. You can check whether or not your site will work properly for your customers before it’s actually finished, which can save you a lot of money when you avoid changes to your site down the line. Some of the key tests to start running as soon as possible involve looking at your top tasks and navigation. More complex developments will benefit from an alpha and a beta phase of testing as well, where more complete versions of your site are released for feedback before everything is signed off.

Top tasks

If you’ve read anything about building a website over the past few years, you’ll probably have heard mention of top tasks. These are the key activities that your customers to your website to complete – you might have one or two, or as many as twenty. Your earliest surveys and market research should give you a good idea of what these are, and that will let your developers focus on these journeys and any specific tools from the beginning. You can then set the tasks for your testers, and see if they can complete them. You’ll need to make sure you have functionality, navigation and content in place before you start, but often you can work on just one or two at at time.

Council website showing top tasks. From
Council website showing top tasks. From

Timed navigation

Top tasks are not the only way to design and evaluate your website, of course. If there are loads of tasks which a customer might perform on your site, and only one or two real ‘top tasks’, that doesn’t mean the rest of your site doesn’t deserve your attention. You can literally time your testers to navigate to different pages, and / or you can track the number of clicks they make from the home page, or from their initial search results. The latter type of test may be more accurate if your development or staging website runs particularly slowly compared to the final version, but you still want to make sure that users are not spending too much time looking around for links that you’ve intended to be obvious.

Alpha sites

An alpha website is a limited version of your final site created reasonably early on in the development process. If you’re working on a very new design or concept which you need to justify, customer research with an alpha site can help you to clarify your ideas. Your alpha site should look show the key elements of your site, with enough content for users to explore it. As well as specific user testing sessions, you would also release your alpha site to a group of trusted users, and key stakeholders, to gather their general feedback and response. Task based testing is at least as important as the more general feedback you’ll get, however, so don’t let fear of change hold you back from an innovative idea if your detailed tests show you its working!

Beta sites

A beta version of your website can be released not long before it’s finished – the majority of the content would be in place along with all the functionality, the design and so on. Although the site should clearly say that it’s a beta site, your users should be able to use it as if it were the final version. If you have an existing website, then your beta site could be linked from the landing page so that people can try it out. Or if it’s a brand new site then you can send it out to your email lists and social media contacts, and start publicising it amongst your audience. Any serious flaws should have been eliminated by this stage, but beta testing will help you make really sure that everything will run smoothly when you release your final version ‘into the wild.’

Making improvements

If you have an existing website, and you want to make changes to it, there are a few tools, above and beyond analytics, that can help you find out what your customers like, and what they want to change. Competitor analysis, top tasks, and timed navigation, as described above, can all help you in this regard. If you have an existing site, however, you can also try A/B testing, and customer survey pop-ups, to give you information on how your customers are using your site.

A/B testing

The basic premise of A/B testing is that half of the visitors to a section of your site see one version, the ‘A’ version, and the other half see the ‘B’ version. You can use analytics to investigate this on a wide scale – do you get more clicks from one page or another, for example – and you can also use A/B testing in one-to-one sessions as well, splitting your testers into two groups who each see a different version. A/B testing is particularly useful when you find one area of your site isn’t performing as well as you’d like it to, and you’re not sure exactly what the solution is. You can test out different variations in real time, and determine how to fix whatever is wrong.

Customer satisfaction surveys

Pop up surveys are often used to gather email addresses for newsletter subscriptions, like the example below, but you can put polls or other feedback questions in there as well, or even link to a more in depth survey elsewhere.


Although they’re not strictly a form of testing, surveys can be a really helpful source of information where your analytics don’t give the qualitative detail that you need. They can be triggered by a certain page, or the amount of time spent looking at something, or you might offer it to every visitor to your website. Then you can ask them if they had difficulty using your site, if they found what they needed, and other information about their experience on that visit, and others before it. You won’t get a huge percentage of your customers to reply, but the ones that do will give you an invaluable source of information, and some may even volunteer to take part in further research for you down the line.

Your stories

Do you have experience of user testing that you’d like to share? Let us know your favourite methods in the comments below.

User Testing 101
Tagged on:                         

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *