At the National Library of Medicine (NLM), one of our most important methods for making our websites user-friendly is usability testing. Library staff recently teamed up with a testing expert to show colleagues at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) how this tool can improve their websites.
Usability testing simply means letting people test a website in a structured setting. The library’s web team does this before a new website goes live or when we’re looking to make improvements to an existing site. We’ve tested a number of our products, including our website for older adults, NIHSeniorHealth, and the responsive design version of our consumer health website, MedlinePlus.
We use many of the tools and techniques usability expert Jonathan Rubin teaches in his usability testing workshop at the General Services Administration (GSA). NLM’s web team attended one of Rubin’s training sessions last year. We found it so helpful, we invited him to NIH and organized a three-hour workshop held in January.
Twenty-six content managers across NIH attended the training. They came prepared with a website to test and a list of tasks a person might expect to accomplish while visiting the site. Rubin showed how to turn that list into a “script,” a series of questions asked during a usability test. The group discussed different ways to ask task-based questions and learned how to quickly write a script that evaluates the most important part of a website.
Next, the scripts were put to the test. Working in pairs, attendees took turns playing either the website user or the moderator conducting the usability test. The moderator asked the user to complete particular tasks on the site, and noted how well the user accomplished the task. Three rounds of testing were done. This allowed moderators to learn how to ask questions in an unbiased way; how to reassure uncertain test participants; and how to help participants give their honest opinions of the site being tested.
The group discussed how to improve their testing and shared mistakes, successes and tips picked up during the role playing. Rubin then explained how to interpret test results. For example, some users accomplished a task quickly and others accomplished the same task slowly, while others still didn’t complete a task at all. Rubin showed how to score results to develop a report that would help determine which features of a website need improvement.
Most importantly, the session finished with the chance to network. Attendees told us the workshop met their expectations. They now have a new tool to use and people throughout NIH who can be a resource, assisting with usability testing.
Author Joanna Widzer is a systems librarian with NLM’s Web and Information Management Unit. She works on NIHSeniorHealth and the NLM website.