Why you should test other people’s sites before your own
Budget is often restrained for designers and researchers; whether in time, money or both. So, why would it ever make sense to test someone else’s website? Especially where you don’t have any ownership or influence to change the designs based on your research or testing?
While it may not be the best case for every situation there are times when it makes perfect sense; maybe you have a fresh idea you are a bit unsure of or perhaps you need to showcase the value of research and the client isn’t budging.
Read on to discover when it makes sense to test websites other than your own.
Testing with an initial idea
Let’s say that you have an idea for a new product, website or service, but you’re unsure whether it will work or if there is a market for it.
You can either go ahead and design and build a prototype of your own (which, depending on the fidelity needed to convey your idea, can be costly in terms of money and time) or another option is to find competitors as similar as possible to your idea. Then, as part of your strategy, use those websites/products to converse with users to understand the market.
At the same time you can start to explore gaps in the market and any usability dos and don’ts to make your idea stronger.
Arguably, this is competitor analysis with user research and should be done before and after the product has been launched. But as the market becomes more saturated with products and apps it makes sense to look into why such an idea has not been done before, before investing your time and efforts.
Reassuring yourself there is a purpose of your idea could help motivate you and people around you if you need their investment.
Testing another site as a new UX designer
The second scenario where this may work is for those new to user experience testing or research. As someone new to their UX role, testing someone else’s website can provide useful experience in interviewing users in this type of context. Interviewing is difficult and expensive, even emotionally at times, which is why the more you practice the more second nature it is to know what to say to build trust in your research.
Use this opportunity to hone your research skills. Often in testing, it is easy to feel guilty when a website or product is that bad, because you’re putting someone through the pain of using it. Utilise other sites to learn how to dig deep into issues and separate yourself from the product.
If you’re also new to stakeholder management, or have stakeholders who are apprehensive about testing their products or services with users, then showing them insights of other websites is a useful way to showcase the worth of testing without them feeling like their work is being insulted. This is particularly useful if you’re a team of one, and are struggling to showcase the value of this type of research.
Testing another site as a seasoned UX designer
Now, even as a seasoned designer why should you be looking to test other websites, products or services before your own? It has been said that one of the biggest milestones of becoming senior is learning the ability to not be so hung up and defensive over work. While this great advice and a good characteristic to have, being defensive is sometimes an unconscious psychological mechanism. As designers, we pour our hearts and souls over the tiniest of details. We spend hours, weeks, months and years researching, designing, exploring, re-researching, redesigning and re-exploring, which means critique can get to even the best of us.
User research is great and all. Even when the feature you’ve spent the last week working on is getting pulled because of findings. That’s fine. Absolutely fine. No problem.
— Paul Coupe (@Coupey) February 19, 2019
So, where does someone else’s website come into this? Well, every website has its issues and we can use this to our advantage. Hearing all the issues of someone else’s work can ease our imposter syndrome and help us prepare for hearing issues in our own work.
This can be a great ice breaker and introduction to the way that people use the product or service. From this you can then start to predict the usability issues your website is facing and the issues won’t be such a surprise when you test your website.
Testing another site as a client
Diving in, let’s start by breaking it down by your role or circumstance. As a client or owner of a product or service, why on earth would you spend the money, time and effort on testing someone else’s website? What value would that bring to you or your users? As a client, testing someone else’s website can add value in showing you, at times, more realistic user behaviour.
Your business is not the only one out there on the market. You know this and so do your users. People have a lot of the information they need about their options right under their fingertips. It’s unrealistic to think users sit at home undistracted exploring just your website and seeing your business as their only option. People go to your site. They open up competitor websites. They flick between tabs. Compare prices, product or service benefits. They make a brew, have a biscuit, come back.
While most usability testing can’t naturally emulate this, what you can bring into the session is the task of asking users to show you what they would do when looking into you and competitors. The question is not if, but when, you test other people’s sites. Whether your business is new or mature, it makes sense at times to test competitors with users so that you can see the gaps in competitors that your business can fill in.
Types of other websites to test
Of course if you test anyone else’s website, choose a direct and worthwhile competitor, otherwise there is little purpose in doing the research. Even though it may not be your website there should still be strategy. Interviewing users with any old website doesn’t make any sense, otherwise you’re left with research of some website which will have zero impact on your product or service.
If you test with direct competitors, you’re practically testing with your possible users who can offer insights into what people are expecting of you. Test with competitors, or one as close as possible, so that you can see if your website or product has the same problems.
Don’t forget to also highlight the positive quotes from uses of competitors, to help you highlight any gaps your product may have or ideas that you have not considered before.
What not to do when testing other websites
Bear in mind that all testing comes at a cost – strategising, planning and writing scenarios and questions for the interviews and recruitment, lost efforts because of no-shows and participant incentives are all costs to you in terms of time, energy, and yes, money.
The good news is that usability testing can be done in relatively cheap, and expensive, ways. If it’s a choice between testing your website or someone else’s, ensure the strategy makes sense and where possible prioritise your own work as that will be the most beneficial. If you do consider testing other websites, try and do so at a cheaper cost like shorter sessions or methods like guerrilla testing.
When to not test other websites than your own
I know what you’re thinking. “This is great, but I’ve only just been given budget to test my own website; never mind someone else’s!” When it comes to usability testing, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and just do it. The earlier the testing, the easier it is to listen to criticism and make the necessary changes. That’s not to say that users will absolutely tear into what they see, but the later you leave asking for feedback, the more usability issues are not dealt with and the larger your issues will become.
Arguably, there is no reason why you can’t test other websites at the same time as yours in sessions, depending on budget or the size of the product or service that needs to be tested. For example, why not add in a scenario asking users to compare one or two competitors before introducing your product or service. Use this to ask them if they would have chosen yours and why or why not.
As with all research, for it to be done well there has to be a solid strategy underpinning the research so that you trust it yourself and stakeholders can’t use any slight mishap or excuse as a reason to not buy into the research.
Even if you are testing other websites, make sure there is purpose behind it, whether that is because you want to showcase the value of research to a stubborn client or you want to sanity check an idea.
For an in-depth and entertaining guide to getting started with user research, read our free-to-download, comprehensive ebook ‘User Experience Research 101’