2010 SEMMY NomineeA big part of my day-job is trying to evangelize website usability to small businesses and friends in other industries (SEO, design, etc.). One of the biggest obstacles I come up against is the idea that decent usability testing is expensive. Sure, full-scale laboratory testing can be expensive and isnt accessible to everyone, but theres a lot that you can do on a budget, and Im a big believer that something is almost always better than nothing.

So, in that spirit, here are a few sets of tools that you can use to start improving usability (and, of course, conversion) today. Many of these tools are free, and all of them can give you real benefit for under $100. Most of the add-on tools are Javascript-based, and if you can install Google Analytics or a widget, you can install any of them.

Usability Tools

Heat Mapping

Laboratory usability studies track visitors eye movements to determine how effective website designs and elements are. While hooking people up to laser-guided computers is extremely cool, its also pretty expensive. Heat mapping (or click mapping) takes a low-cost approach to this by mapping out where visitors click on a site and using it to develop a simulated heat map of activity. While these maps wont tell you exactly where people are looking, they can help you determine if your actionable content, links, and ads are placed effectively.

Resources: Crazy Egg, ClickDensity, Google Analytics (Site Overlay)

Screen Recorders

Of course, the core of usability testing is being able to watch what your visitors are really doing on your website, but thats tricky when those visitors are sometimes hundreds of miles away. Thats where remote screen recording software comes in " it records your individual visitors movements through your website and lets you watch them as online videos. While the insights arent as deep as you can get from interacting with site visitors and watching them in person, remote screen recorders can help you get a sense for whether people are able to navigate effectively and what hurdles they encounter.

Resources: Robot Replay, UserFly

Survey Engines

The next best thing to watching your visitors in action is to ask them what they want. Online surveys have a reputation for being poorly designed and often ignored, but some recent survey engines have raised the bar, making survey design and implementation easy and using opt-in approaches and limiting participation to avoid scaring off visitors.

Resources: 4Q by iPerceptions

Outsourced Testing

Ideally, you could watch your visitors and get their feedback - outsourced testing allows you to do just that. Outsourced testing isnt free, but many sites now allow you to get quick, structured feedback at relatively low cost. Even though its not as rigorous as laboratory testing and the quality of test subjects varies, this type of testing is still great for those A-ha! moments, letting you see what you might be overlooking. Pricing ranges from $1/visitor to about $60/visitor, and quality definitely varies with price, but you can start with the low-cost options while youre learning the ropes and then pay more as your projects merit it.

Resources: Usertesting.com, FeedbackArmy, Userlytics

Do-It-Yourself Testing

If you dont trust testing to a 3rd-party website, why not do it yourself? One-on-one testing in usability isnt about hard science; its about watching and learning, seeing past what you take for granted and figuring out how regular people use your site. So, get some regular people (your boss, your mom, your friends), sit them in front of your website, and start watching. Before you do, though, do yourself a favor and read Steve Krugs usability classic Dont Make Me Think. Its short, it will teach you everything you need to know about one-on-one testing, and, at least in the realm of usability, its the best $26 youll ever spend.

Resources: Dont Make Me Think (book)

Any More Excuses?

Hopefully, youve run out of excuses " usability testing doesnt have to be expensive, and once you start putting it to work regularly, youll never know how you lived without it. The next time you hit a wall with your website development or run into conversion problems, take an hour to check out some of these resources, and I promise itll be time well spent.