User testing — 7 ways to step up your freelance game

As a freelancer building websites, you've probably worked with clients who have resisted the idea of user testing. You may have heard them say that their budgets are 'carved in stone', or that they don't think user testing is worth the cost. You may have even come across clients who think that adding user testing to a project is a 'useless upsell'.

As web professionals, you know better. Your experience has shown that at least a base level of testing will guarantee a better website. So it's time for you to make this known to your clients.

Here are 7 tips and techniques to help you ensure user testing becomes a non-negotiable part of your projects — and to help you convince even the hardiest skeptics.

Start offering testing services in the first place

Try offering user testing early on in your discussions with your client, or highlighting user testing in your marketing material. Even something as basic as noting on your services page that you offer specific types of testing can be enough to spark the idea in a client's mind. Personally, I found that when I offered my clients the option to test some of their content before publishing it online, many clients weren’t even aware that testing was an option.

For freelancers who are used to fighting with clients over every line of the budget, even just suggesting that a client should spend more money can feel like pulling teeth. But the reality may be pleasantly surprising. Some clients will be open to any ideas that promise to improve their web presence, particularly if you've made it clear at the start that user testing will produce a higher quality product.

Base your guarantees on your ability to test

Testing is a necessary step to provide your clients with the best possible website, so why not describe it as such? Todd Sieling, of Denim and Steel, describes testing as a core part of the end-to-end web and iOS projects the company takes on. It's a company-wide philosophy: 'We can’t stand behind our work unless we can test it. It’s like how we can’t use fonts that we don’t license.'

Exactly how you stand behind your work is up to you. Because you're choosing the terms of the guarantee, you can make it completely contingent on a client paying for your testing services, and even for accounts on any testing platforms you choose to use.

Offering a guarantee that may require you to fix a website for free is a bit of a gamble, of course. You're betting that you can design and run tests that will catch problems before a given site is out of your control. But with the right tools and solid user testing data up your sleeve, that's a bet you could be comfortable with.

Make testing part of your basic project quote

Your clients come to you because you're the expert: you have design or development skills that they don't have, along with the knowledge of how to produce a finished website for their use. That gives you a little bit of power. If you want to make testing a standard part of your process for building a new website, you can make things that simple.

Increase your prices across the board to cover the tools you need for different types of usability testing, and the time you need to create the tests and analyse the data. Most of your clients will accept that testing is a normal part of the process of getting a new website. You might get some pushback from particularly budget-conscious clients. But if clients refuse to consider paying for user testing, you'll get a useful insight into other kinds of push back you might experience — and which clients you'd potentially prefer not to work with.

Point out the relative costs of testing and creative work

If money is the biggest factor in your client's decision-making process, you can make that work for you. Lynne Polischuik, an experience analyst and interaction designer, points to how much more efficient testing your work early on can be: 'What's the saying? "That extra year of development saved you ten hours of user research?"'

In fact, if you can put concepts in front of prospective users from the start of a new project, you can help guide your clients to an end result that precisely matches the goals they have. As Polischuik suggests, '"Should we build this at all?" should come before "How well does this work?"'

Discuss the costs of finding problems later on

Paint a picture of the future when you're in negotiations with a client. Make them understand that a usability problem can drive paying customers away from a website, leading to lost sales. And that fixing such problems can be expensive, which can add up to far more than a client might have to pay for some testing. Your clients could do with knowing that in a worst case scenario, a website's owner might need to pay for a whole new site if an error slips through.

Sieling notes, 'The cost to fix a problem goes up the further into development and longer it’s in public hands.' In part, that's because of the cost of actually dealing with a problem on a live site — down time can be costly. But your client may also have to provide support to their own customers. Sieling continues, 'Having to deal with support issues multiplies the cost of fixing early by at least five to ten times.' Your clients will appreciate being given a heads up about the realities of running a website.

Pull up some case studies

Case studies can be both persuasive and scary. There are plenty of horror stories out there about website glitches that a simple test or two could have caught. One of the most extreme resulted in a court case, National Federation of the Blind v. Target. Blind users were basically unable to access most of Target's website (a problem that might have been noticed through any number of different usability tests). That lack of access violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires businesses operating in the US to be accessible to individuals with disabilities. Target wound up settling for $6 million, plus agreeing to fix its website.

Choose case studies that make sense to your client, and clarify the value of the specific types of testing that will help improve the websites you're working on. The best source of case studies are client projects you’ve worked on yourself. You’re always in a better position to explain the logic behind the process and tools you used if you’re talking about your own work.

Look for other case studies shared by the creators of the tools and strategies you use: the developers behind a given piece of software, or the academics behind a specific approach will often make case studies and other examples available. In either case, sharing a case study with a prospective client doesn’t have to be a hard sell. Just offering an example to explain a point can be a good reason to hand a case study over.

Connect quality web design to reputation and sales

Point out that a quality website, backed up by user analysis, will protect your clients' reputations from Launch Day forward. Most of your clients would never send a product out to their own customer base without going through a quality assurance process. No one wants to run the risk of developing a bad reputation in the long run, whether it's for a product they sell or how hard their website is to use.

And if your client sells products online, remind them it only takes a moment for users to be turned off. Online buyers are notorious for switching their sellers of choice frequently. It just takes one hiccup in the shopping process to convince a buyer to search for another seller — to the point that almost 70 percent of online shopping carts are abandoned before a purchase is completed. The more you can make the reality of user behavior known to your clients, the more they will understand your commitment to user testing.

Published on Jun 02, 2014
Thursday Bram
  • Thursday Bram
  • Thursday Bram is a user experience researcher and designer.

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