Originally published: Feb 19, 2004
Is your web site chartered with encouraging people to buy or use your product or service? Is it succeeding? It turns out there is a simple usability testing technique that can help you measure how your site communicates your product's inherent value.
Zipcar has a very cool service. If you live in Boston, New York City, North Carolina, or Washington, DC, you can rent one of their cars for as little time as an hour. The cars are conveniently located around the city and are perfect for errands, such as groceries or visiting a doctor in the suburbs.
Zipcar customers love the service. They can't stop talking about how wonderful it is. Many have given up their own cars and now use Zipcar exclusively. No more paying for insurance, buying expensive gasoline, or trying to find parking on city streets.
How does someone find out about Zipcar? Maybe they see one of the brightly decorated cars on the street. Or they hear about it at a cocktail party.
However they find out about Zipcar, they eventually end up at Zipcar's web site trying to decide if the service is right for them. How do the site's designers tell if they've done a good job? How do they know what to change on the site to help prospective customers decide if the service is right for them?
This is a problem that many sites have. Maybe you're developing an intranet site for the Human Resources group. How do employees know what value you've put on the site? Maybe you're working for the EPA and have some great information on how people can help protect the environment. How do citizens know the information is there and how they can use it?
To handle these types of problems, we've been using a technique we call "Inherent Value Testing." Inherent Value Testing gives the team important information about how well a web site communicates the inherent value the designers are putting into the site.
As a variant of standard usability testing, Inherent Value Testing has the same basic structure: users, tasks, and the site you're testing. The difference is in the details of the test execution.
For example, in a recent project, we used Inherent Value Testing to help a consumer services client understand if new customers understood the true value of their service. Our client was similar to Zipcar -- they already had a strong customer base that was actively using their services. This group of customers became an important resource in our project.
Selecting users is a little different when conducting an Inherent Value Test. For this project, we selected 12 users: six were existing loyal customers; six were people who met the target profile but hadn't used the service yet.
Inherent Value Testing occurs in two phases. In the first phase, we asked the six loyal customers to give us a tour of the site, sharing the features they used and liked the best. We listened to their words, as they were explaining to us what they thought the benefits were.
In the first phase of our recent project, we learned that the existing customers thought the biggest benefits of the service were the service's price, the service's high quality, and the exceptional customer support. (Almost every customer had mentioned how they were confident that any problems that could arise would be instantly fixed by the customer care staff.) It was amazing how every customer had practically identical impressions of the service's value.
In the second phase, we set out to see if the six potential customers see these same benefits when they visit the site. To do this, we started with tasks created by the loyal customers. We based the tasks on what loyal customers liked best about the site and the things they normally did while there. We created scenarios that would simulate the need for the service and asked the potential customers to 'role play' through the scenario.
As the potential customers used the site, we focused on what they thought the service was good for. We asked them to tell us what they liked and didn't like about the service. We watched where they went on the site and how it convinced them to take advantage of the service.
Everybody was surprised at just how ineffective our client's site was at communicating those core values that the experienced customers had raved about. Rarely did a prospective customer encounter anything that communicated the service's low prices. In fact, each customer stated outright that they thought the service was more expensive than familiar competitors, when in fact the service was actually cheaper.
Nor did the prospects see anything that communicated the service's high quality or exceptional customer support. The prospects even mentioned, without prompting, they believed the overall service quality would likely be poor. They said this was because of how difficult they found the site to use.
Inherent Value Testing gives an additional perspective: the features and benefits that even the most loyal customers have missed. Our client discovered that there was a huge portion of their offerings that nobody knew about. They knew that sales had always been low for those offerings, but they had assumed that it was just because they were unpopular.
In our tests, we noticed that the loyal customers weren't visiting the portion of the site that contained these offerings. As we were wrapping up the test sessions, we deliberately directed the users to that section.
The result: the customers thought the offerings were amazing. They instantly got all excited about the products, spewing out ideas on how they'd use these services.
One woman, who was an independent documentary producer, was ready to purchase the service for every member of her cast and crew. She had used the site dozens of times over the past few years and never realized these services were available. She was extremely excited about the "new" offerings (which had been available since long before she started using the site).
Inherent Value Testing showed us what was valuable about the site and its underlying services. It gives us a concise, easy way to learn how well the site communicates value and where it falls short.
With the results of this technique, design teams can easily prioritize changes. Subsequent testing can demonstrate that changes have improved the design. Inherent Value Testing is one more technique in our user experience toolbox that gives teams the information they need to create successful designs. •
[Editor's Note: ZipCar is not a client of User Interface Engineering. We just happen to think they are a really cool service that everyone should get very excited about. (If you live in one of their service cities, you really should see what they have to offer!)]
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