Can small companies with small websites employ usability methods to improve the quality of their designs? Yes. Should they? Definitely. Even a tiny budget will substantially improve a site's business value.
In May 2002, . Net magazine asked a range of Web design shops to bid on the design of a seven-page website for R. Thomas and Sons Butchers, a fictitious small business. (Unfortunately the article is not available online.) As you might expect, the quoted fees ranged widely, but many good proposals seemed to come in at around $2,000.
Given that current best practices call for spending about 10% of design budgets on usability, this project would have about $200 available for usability. What can you get for that money?
Plenty. But first an aside: it's obviously wrong to go in assuming a set number of pages for a site. The starting point for any Web project should be a task analysis of the information and features that users need. The second step is to construct an information architecture for this content. Only after you know the content and structure should you design navigation and pages. Still, it seems reasonable to assume that a small company's website would be around seven pages, so I'll go with that number here.
Four Steps to Small-Company Usability
I recommend splitting the $200 budget into four parts, with $50 for each of the following activities:
One hour to question customers about their information needs
One hour to review an early version of the design
One hour for a quick, in-store test of the design
One hour to enhance the site's search engine visibility
Of course, I'm assuming that we can get an hour's work for $50. This obviously wouldn't be possible if we were dealing with one of the big glamour design agencies with the hugely higher billable rates. But then, a big agency wouldn't even answer the phone for a $2,000 project. It's much more realistic to expect a butcher to use a small local design firm with lower rates.
Step 1: Determine the Customers' Questions
Take advantage of the fact that the client is a butcher and spend an hour in the store interviewing customers as they come in. Ask them what they want to know about the store. Ask them for details about what happened as they got ready to go shopping that day.
People are bad at remembering generalities and predicting what they might need, but they're reasonably good at remembering what they've just done. This recall method is not nearly as good as a real field study, where you can actually watch what people actually do, as opposed to what they remember doing. But there's no way to do a proper field study for $50.
The main downside of this approach is that you're not researching the information needs of prospective customers; you're only talking to people who already shop with the client. You could spend some of the interview time outside the store, intercepting people in the neighborhood, but it would be harder to get them to talk to you and might require a bigger budget for incentives.
In-store shoppers who help you should get a very small incentive -- perhaps a discount coupon or a bottle of barbecue sauce. (I cheated here, and didn't include the cost of such incentives in the $200 budget, but shopkeepers should be able to find something they can give away without much true cost to the business.)
While you're in the store, talk to the person who answers the phone and find out what callers' most common questions are. Answers to such questions are prime candidates for site content.
Step 2: Review Initial Design According to Usability Guidelines
An hour doesn't go very far in reviewing a website, but an experienced professional should be able to check whether the draft design complies with the 113 usability guidelines for homepage design and general Web usability principles.
With only an hour to assess the design, the reviewer obviously needs previous experience with the usability principles. There is no time to learn new guidelines or study up on how to judge when which principles apply. That's why it's so important to select a design agency that regularly performs user testing on projects so that the staff is already well versed in how humans behave with interactive systems.
This hour's $50 budget doesn't include the $40 cost of the homepage guidelines. I assume the butcher is wise enough to pick a design agency with sufficient commitment to usability, and a corresponding library of usability books and research reports that can supply checklists when the going gets tough.
Step 3: Test a Paper Prototype In-Store
Next, you should quickly modify the design to fix the worst problems identified in your review. Then it's time to test the design with real users.
To do this, you can print copies of the site's seven pages and run an in-store paper prototype test. Although you could bring a laptop and test on-screen versions of the design, paper prototypes are more suited to a store environment: Rather than ask customers to sit at a computer, you can simply hold up pages one at a time, showing them to users wherever they're standing. Printing enlarged pages increases the likelihood that shoppers will be able to decipher screen content without their reading glasses, which might not be easily available.
User screening at this level is impossible -- simply test shoppers who are willing to give you 10 minutes of their time. This is obviously a convenience sample . You're dispensing with the 234 guidelines for recruiting user-testing participants and just testing whoever happens to enter the store. That's the only way to get user data for $50. That said, you should ask shoppers whether they use the Web, and only test Web users. Otherwise, your only finding will be that computers are too difficult for novice users.
Each session should last less than 10 minutes so that you can test the recommended five users in an hour.
Step 4: Improve Search Engine Visibility
Most people will arrive at the website in one of two ways:
From the butcher's own promotions -- say, printing the URL on shopping bags and wrapping paper
From search engines
There's no way you can achieve full-fledged professional search engine optimization for $50. Still, an hour's work by someone who knows the basics of search engine visibility should dramatically improve the likelihood that searchers will find the site. It's at least possible to ensure that the homepage title well represents the site in results listings, and that the page includes the most salient query terms.
The site might not get the coveted #1 spot in a search for "Butcher East Falmouth" or for "where to buy meat in East Falmouth," but unless there are more than ten butchers in town, improving search engine visibility ought to get the site a nice listing on the first results page.
If the Butcher Can Do It, So Can You
Even a seemingly insignificant $200 budget can substantially improve a small company's site usability. These four simple steps can dramatically increase a site's contribution to the company's bottom line, and thus offer a higher return on investment for the $2,000 spent on the companys modest Web presence.
Based on this exercise, I have five recommendations:
Be creative. Even a tiny budget is no excuse for eliminating usability from a design project. Although you might have to create uncommonly quick-and-dirty variations on established methods, you can still include usability.
Be diverse. Employing various user-centered methods in several small activities is usually better than going with a single activity that's limited to a single method.
Be trusting. Moving at the speed described in this article leaves no time for data analysis or for any type of report-writing. You will have to trust the main findings from each activity and act on them without debate.
Be prepared. Executing four methods for $200 assumes that you have an experienced staff that is well versed in improving usability and search engine visibility, and is familiar with important guideline checklists.
Be opportunistic. If the client has a store, for example, save on recruiting and incentive costs by running user testing onsite. With each project, you'll find unique opportunities for saving money if you look for them rather than always relying on the same methodology.
Luckily, most projects have usability budgets that are much bigger than $200, so they don't have to cut as many corners. The most important point to remember, though, is that you can do it . No matter what your project, and no matter how big or small your budget, usability is there to help you succeed.
Case study of conducting 4 usability studies in 2 weeks for the design of an intranet (substantially bigger budget, but still very fast).
Full-day tutorial on user testing at the annual Usability Week conference.
Select cities also feature a 3-day camp on Usability in Practice.