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Usability Testing

Usability TestingOne of the most important processes to be undergone before a website can be publicly unveiled is the usability testing phase. If you're running a commercial website, this is a crucial technique to master and one which unfortunately, isn't particularly enjoyable.

What is usability testing? And perhaps, as you might be wondering, why isn't the testing carried out by the actual users?

Usability testing is simply the method by which we determine areas where a website may not be functioning correctly.

The World Wide Web is a giant network of information being exchanged across many different platforms. Not every one of those platforms is the same, and as such, a website may operate to differing standards on different computers.

One of the most obvious aspects of usability that a developer must learn to consider is the nature of web browsers. While one user might be using Microsoft Internet Explorer, another might be browsing via Mozilla Firefox.

There are many browsers on the market but the most popular choices include; Microsoft IE, Netscape, Firefox, Opera, Crazy Browser and Apple Safari.

Each web browser is developed to a different optimum of performance. While the general standard for HTML compatibilities and XHTML interpretation remains present on all of them, certain functionality might not. The w3 Consortium regularly reviews its policy for web standards, but you should be aware of the basic differences.

When you test the usability of your website, don't take the high route of expecting the rest of the world to employ the same browser as the one you happen to have installed. Usability testing is profession of its own, and to do a good job at it, you should have all of the major browsers installed.

If your website operates to the same standard on each platform, congratulations, you're in the successful minority. If it doesn't, what kind of errors are you getting? Certain browsers will render HTML components differently, while others will reject unstable code altogether. Be sure to stay up to date with the revolving web standards at w3, since every browser has to be designed with the consortium's approval before it reaches the mainstream.

You'll have to spend a good slice of time evaluating the usability of your website on each browser, and analyzing the core functions. But the fun doesn't stop there. You'll also need to employ usability testing for the absence of scripting technology.

Every user has the ability to turn JavaScript off in their browser settings. This is a remarkably scary proposition for a commercial website without both client validation and server-side validation.

It's not enough to provide JavaScript alone as the mechanical engine behind ANY aspect of your website. JavaScript is a complimentary technology, and one which not all users will support.

If you're going to implement scripting of any kind using variable technology, make sure that you offer an alternative for if the user has JavaScript turned off. There's a simple way to test whether your website is matching the usability requirements. Go to your Internet Tools (the exact location will vary depending on your browser) and disable scripting.

If your website still operates, give yourself an even bigger pat on the back, since you're now in an even smaller minority of successful web developers.

Another variable to consider is the usage of cookies. You've probably heard of the term, but you might not know what it is exactly. A cookie is a harmless slice of information stored at the user's end, and it can be beneficial for tracking activity across a website.

Some websites rely on cookies for instances such as shopping carts and member areas. These are scenarios where information has to be transferred from page to page. If your website is designed like this, you will definitely need to test the usability to determine whether the problems are insurmountable with cookies disabled.

If you find that errors are returned with cookies disabled, you need to take action. A surprisingly large number of users deny cookies storage space and thus, you will need to provide either a display message on the homepage issuing a warning to the user that cookies are required to continue; or an alternative method of information parsing. Sessions can be used depending on the capabilities of the browser, and parsing through the URL string is another option.

Many commercial websites use what's known as a staging server to run thorough tests on their web applications. These are especially useful if you're committing changes to a database such as mySQL or Access. You don't want to write to the actual database if you're running usability tests, and a staging server acts as a virtual development site to ensure functionality before public release.

Error debugging is perhaps the ultimate goal of usability testing and you'll be glad to hear that you're not alone in the field. Many programs come with debugging features. Macromedia Dreamweaver is fantastic for ironing out glitches in the code, and you can even throw your pages through a development processor which will return any stray line that isn't compatible with a certain browser. EditPlus is also a great development suite, and has the added advantage of being free.

Usability testing can be immensely frustrating for a developer. Indeed, when you seem to be so close to having that perfect design in place, it can be a real heartbreaker to find that part of your audience are using incompatible web browsers.

But despite the inconvenience, usability testing is here for the benefit of all of us. If you want to be reaching the optimum number of potential clients on the web, it's a process that has to be taken seriously
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