The Mom Test

grandmotherI’m a fanatic about usability and interaction design as a result of my background as an ecommerce site designer/information architect. In a later post I’ll write about information architecture as it relates to SEO, but this post is specifically about usability on websites, and more specifically knowing where to go.

Usability issues make me think of what I call The Mom Test. All the developers who have worked for me kind of roll their eyes when they hear that phrase, since I talk about it with every new developer and they’ve all heard it many times.

The Mom Test involves imaging my mother sitting down in front of the computer to try to use what I have created. Would it confuse her, frighten her? Would she instinctively know what to do, where to click? That is The Mom Test. You can say that it’s catering to the lowest common denominator, and in a sense that’s true…and it’s not a bad thing. A transactional site shouldn’t be an intelligence test or a challenge of your intuition. The user is there to DO something, buy a product or access a forum or check on account status. Get in, get what you need, get out.

Large sites will pay for usability testing, which is quite expensive, involved, and horribly eyeopening. The company that handles the testing will arrange for a range of paid volunteers who hopefully reflect major cross-sections of your customer base. They are given certain directives, things that they have to accomplish on the site. Each one sits at a PC, and two views are recorded: one view showing what they are doing onscreen, and one view showing their face and recording what they say.

Almost invariably, it’s a shock. Things that you think would be screamingly obvious to any reasonably computer literate person are ignored. They are blind to huge glowing Login or Buy Now buttons, and you can see their eyes searching all over the screen. “Where is it? I don’t know what you want me to do here.” You feel gutted, but you learn so much.

eyetrackingPart of usability is knowing how people navigate sites. Most of you will have read about “F Patterns” which relates to how people naturally scan webpages or search results pages. That’s why designers normally put the logo in the top left corner, and horizontal navigation along the top. You try not to put anything essential to scan in the right hand column – it probably won’t be picked up on a quick scan of the page. People also have patterns in how they try to complete objectives – on an ecommerce site, they make different paths through the site depending on if they know what they want (product navigation or item search), if they want you to show them what they might like (splash areas on homepages, new products, seasonal areas such as Gifts for Valentines Day) or if they are searching for bargains (straight to Web Specials).

The trick is understanding your site, and how your visitors shop. You need to know who your customers are, in order to meet that objective with as few clicks as possible. Make it easy for them, give them what they need.

And, as a really practical example of the Mom Test, you can actually set your parents down in front of your site. (Or any older person who you know is not an internet whiz.) Is it intuitive enough for them to figure out? Then you’ve passed the test. 🙂