Testing a website’s design and user interaction is a crucial step in the design-test-redesign cycle and in almost all cases, the content is fitted to the design thereafter. There are no established methods or processes to test content and user comprehensability. If you restrict your testing to navigation and layout only, then you may never really know if your content is appropriate for your audience.
Understanding how they think
You need to understand how human factors influence the design of information. Any content you create must be centred on the who, why, and how questions:
- Who will read or use this information?
- Why will they use it?
- How easily will they be able to use it?
In the introduction to Human factors 1 Coe makes the comment that:
Users inhabit their world; you and your information do not. They bring information into their world to read, use and apply.
Coe goes on to explain that readers approach information using methods based on their experiences of the world. So, for information to meet the needs of users, its content, design and delivery must relate to that user’s own frames of reference.
Sensation is the physical way we collect data, while perception is the thinking process we use to interpret the data our senses give us. Sensation and perception are inextricably linked and you can’t have one without the other. Once our brains have encoded any sensory data, our thinking processes try to decipher the data.
Coe points out that we are all in a constant state of information management. Our brains are always trying to screen out non-essential information.
An information designer needs to access readers’ sensory filters using good writing and design principles right from the planning stage. Information that is easy to navigate and clearly written is more likely to make it through the unconscious filter systems of readers than information that contains unappealing writing and muddled design.
Using traditional usability tests
Now that you understand what’s involved in reader comprehension, we can jump into testing your content. Typical scenarios, created to test layout and design, can often be modified to test content by being less specific and allowing the reader to reach a conclusion from reading the content. Consider the two examples:
Select the VISA debit option
Select the credit option that uses your own money
In the above examples you can see that the first instruction is a simple instruction to the user, while the second instruction actually requires the user read through and understand the information before making a selection. As with all usability testing, it is important to emphasise that it’s the content and not the user that’s being tested. It is all the more important here, to encourage the participant to think aloud in order to catch any content that is confusing. Asking the participant to paraphrase sections of text may also prove insightful.
If you’re on a tight budget, remote usability testing using Usaura, Ethnio, Loop11 or – shamelessly self-promoting – my own WriteUX app, will let you set up most usability tests for your content.
Using heuristic evaluations
Heuristic evaluations, sometimes called expert evaluations (because they’re not done by actual users) – offer quick and relatively cheap feedback to designers early on in the design process. A heuristic evaluation applies a set of rules or principles to an inspection of the user interface.
There are no established set of heuristics for content testing, but the trick is to ask questions in a loosely structured way that leads you to discover significant issues and improvements. Fred Leise gives us a set of heuristics he has used to test a website’s content
As Leise notes:
While you can use heuristics for any kind of website or intranet, regardless of size or content, certain heuristics may be less applicable for some sites.
The thing to remember here is that the heuristics allow us to group our questions in a logical way and there is no had-and-fast rule for selecting which heuristics to use.
Ultimately, while testing content, you will have to rely on your experience as a web-user to guide your evaluation, using the heuristics as a checklist and framework to present your findings.
- Coe, M. (1996). Human Factors for Technical Communicators ↩