FloorPop -  Internet Marketing that Works, December 3, 2003

Vol. 3, Issue 9 - Do a colleague a favor and forward them this newsletter. Subscribe to this newsletter

Copyright (C) 2003 Blair Kuhnen.  All rights reserved. May be reproduced in any medium for non commercial purposes as long as attribution is given.

Usability Testing Homebuilder Websites

Most people involved in website development work are familiar with the benefits of usability or user-centered design. Those primary benefits being:

While there are numerous studies to substantiate these benefits, summary metrics are provided in a recent study by Nielsen, Norman Group (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20030107.html). In studying 42 redesign efforts where improvement metrics were gathered, they found the following average gains:

Metric Average Improvement
Across Web Projects
Sales / conversion rate 100%
Traffic / visitor count 150%
User performance / productivity 161%
Use of specific (target) features 202%

Our Approach

Our approach to usability testing homebuilder websites is straightforward. There are many ways you can conduct a usability test and many types of testing you can do. Here we share one method we typically use with homebuilder websites which you may use on your own or with the help of a consultant.

First, a couple of ground rules:

Rule #1: You can not be 100% objective if you design, code, and test the work all on your own even if you really do know what you are doing.

Rule #2: When you hire a designer / developer, make sure testing is an integral part of what they are doing for you. They may have this talent in-house, but ensure it is NOT the same individuals responsible for coding and delivery.

All of that being said, let's talk about usability tailored to homebuilder websites. Thankfully, most of builder websites are simple and user goals are easy to discover. The process is fairly simple:

  1. Find out what your user's goals are for each relevant user group.
  2. Develop a set of use case scenarios to test whether real users can accomplish their goals.
  3. Find representative users and test against the scenarios.

Discovering User Goals

The best way we have found to discover user goals is to ask them in a focus group setting and follow this up with an online survey. Since most homebuyers use the Internet as part of their new home search, you can piggy-back your Internet-related questions onto another marketing focus group session to save cost. Once you have a sense for likely user goals, it's time to survey your website users.

Thankfully, surveying users online is quick, easy, and inexpensive. Here's an example survey you can take (http://www.zoomerang.com/survey.zgi?69LMX20KQG6K5AMMA64NJRFQ).

Developing Your Use Case Scenarios

Let your focus group and survey drive your scenarios. If you are like many production builders, you will find scenarios such as this: "Bill and Pat are relocating to Atlanta with their two children. They want to complete their move in the next 2 months before schools starts. They want to find a new home close to Ciba Vision in Northeast Atlanta for under $250,000. Ideally, they will find a home that is ready to move in before September so they will not have to live in corporate housing." How many scenarios do you need? According to Dr. Jeff Harpster, Ph.D., owner of Useful Systems, a usability consulting firm in Maryland, "Typically testing 3 to 4 detailed scenarios like the one above will give you a great idea of your sites usability. Naturally, this depends on the size and complexity of your site. If you only sell one type of home in one city then you won't need as many scenarios."

Testing Your Website

Once you have your scenarios, it's time to test. The best time to start testing is while you are in design and before you begun coding. We usually will run designs through an expert review to clean things up before spending money to run users through the design. Your user testing can be done with paper prototypes or with online mock-ups of your new website pages. After running just a few users through your current or new site design, you will likely find a vast majority of your usability issues. "Having done hundreds of tests, my experience indicates that testing approximately 6 users per group is enough to uncover at least 90% of the usability issues with a site," said Harpster.

The earlier in your design cycle you can do this testing, the better. It is always easier, faster and less expensive to change a design while it is still on paper. If you are able to test at this early stage, it means you will be able to develop a highly usable and effective website in your first pass at coding.

Additional Usability Resources

Feel free to browse the selected usability articles from Jakob Nielsen linked on the Lux Solutions Website at http://www.luxsolutions.com/articles.html#jakob.

Recent Internet Marketing Articles for Builders

The Lux Solutions website now contains expanded articles for builders. Here are a few recent articles:

- Benchmarking and Sharing Best Practices to Improve Performance
- Online Surveys to Improve Business Results
- People in Green Cars Need Not Apply (pdf 98k)
- Managing "Coming Soon" Interest Lists Online
- 9 Ways to Drive Internet Leads and Sales
- The Online Sales Counselor
- The User-Centered Web Site (pdf 127k)
- Drive Leads with Permission Marketing

View all articles...

FloorPop is published on the first Wednesday of each month.  We welcome your comments, thoughts, and questions.  Please send them to blair@luxsolutions.com.

Blair Kuhnen is the owner of Lux Solutions, an independent consultancy serving the homebuilding industry by providing Internet related sales and marketing solutions.  He can be reached in Fort Worth, Texas at 866-923-4026 or via e-mail at blair@luxsolutions.com for a private consultation. Jeff Harpster, of Useful Systems provides usability services to a wide range of corporate and government clients. He can be reached at info@usefulsystems.comor by phone at 301-560-1521.