The Cheapskate’s Guide to Usability

by Dr. Peter J. Meyers May 4th, 2009 

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:, 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.

Dr. Peter J. Meyers

Dr. Peter J. Meyers ("Dr. Pete") is the President of User Effect, a cognitive psychologist, and an accidental entrepreneur. In his spare time, he raises a daughter and writes about procrastination at 30GO30.

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20 Responses to “The Cheapskate’s Guide to Usability”

  1. I've always been a big fan of heatmapping. It shows visually exactly what people are doing and where you can work to improve. I have found it especially useful to know when an image should be made "clickable".

  2. Shana Albert says:

    Where is your muppet? I thought for sure I would see Yoozer. [sigh] 😉

    Despite the fact that you left Yoozer back on your blog, Dr. Pete…. this is still an awesome post!! Enoyed it thoroughly. :)

  3. @David – That's a great point. It's not just about whether or not people are clicking where you want them to, but finding out about places they might be clicking that you never counted on. When you find those, there's often an opportunity.

    @Shana – I don't think Yoozer is quite ready for guest-posting, but we'll see. I don't want Jeff and Ruud to think I'm any stranger than they already do :)

  4. Jeff Quipp says:

    Great post Pete! Heat mapping can be a great source of unexpected information!

  5. Many people don't even realize exactly how much they can sometimes do themselves just by taking a look online and doing some research.

  6. Tom Demers says:

    Great list; I wasn't aware of the outsourced testing resources you list I'll give them a look. Site overlay in GA is a great and often underused tool

    Conversion Rate Experts has a similar list of free to low price point usability tools I found helpful:

    Good stuff, thanks!


  7. Joe Cent says:

    I have used Crazy Egg a lot in my last company. You can really get a lot of informations out of it.
    However, you need a certain minimum numbers of visitors per time period so that you will get reliable results.

  8. Cool Gifts says:

    Great tips. As an SEO, I feel that this is something I don't spend enough time on. I can definitely see why it's so important. I plan to take advantage of the testing resources that you have mentioned.

  9. Ralph Hibbs says:

    Great tip list. I've recently become a big fan of It is a great low-risk, low-cost way to quickly get "Fresh Eyes" feedback. Having a video of a user is great for rewatching critical parts. The video is also helpful to illustrate usability problems in an non-personal way.

  10. Charan says:

    I recently came across – still in private beta but a quick and great way to get feedback on mock ups and designs.

  11. wlmeurer says:

    Do-It-Yourself Testing should also include the resource Silverback ( For $50 you can turn your Macbook into a mobile usability lab. Records the screen, audio, and iSight or webcam video of the participant.

    We use it all the time.

  12. Surveys are the most effective method of taking feedback from your customers. Many of the business got success by making their site as per the user’s requirements. This is most widely used method, thus people are familiar with it.

  13. […] Cheapskate's Guide to Usability […]

  14. Janusz says:

    Great resource. Thanks! Also, worth mentioning

  15. […] The Cheapskate's Guide to Usability (guest post by Dr. Pete of User Effect) […]

  16. Kathi Kaiser says:

    We've been using Userfly, and we find it both addicting and frustrating. It's fascinating to see what users are doing on the site, but we find it raises more questions than it answers. Who is the user? What is his or her goal? Did the information provided meet expectations? What is the user's next step after leaving the site?

    Userfly may be most effective as a tool for generating hypotheses about usability issues that can be further explored in usability testing. It's important to note that not all usability testing is expensive – there are many options between these "cheapskate" tools and a full-fledged traditional usability study.

  17. Dr. Pete says:

    @Kathi – I understand your point on the remote recorders. Unless you have a very specific question or issue, like a form completion problem, tools like UserFly can raise more questions than they answer. I think that's a valuable part of the process, though – many of these tools are really first steps so that you can gain some general insights and take the second (and usually more expensive) steps with a better sense of the right questions and direction.

  18. Danial says:

    Screen recorders are helpful tools to record users' activity on the screen. It would be nice materials to test the usability of a website or a software application. And these recorders can even make software tutorials and website demos for users.

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