Have you sat down with a customer and watched them search on your website? If not, consider it a new part of your job responsibilities. You’ll quickly learn how invaluable and illuminating the process can be.

If you’re making changes to your search experience, user testing before a release decreases UX (user experience) problems that would otherwise only be noticed by users — probably on a mass scale — after release. At Constructor.io, we’ve seen a number of companies that could have saved themselves post-release headaches if they’d just front-loaded their product cycle with user testing.

The bottom line: User testing helps you catch and remedy problems with your website early; otherwise, you’ll end up wasting more time and spending more money remedying these issues in the long term. But while usability testing is important, how can you do it in a way that improves your users’ search experience?

Step 1: Create a test audience

You don’t need a huge group of customers for useful results. Instead, find around 10 customers (or potential customers) to serve as your test group. Ideally, they’ll be a mix of people familiar with your website and people who’ve never encountered it.

Why don’t you need a huge sample size? Simple: Often the value of user testing is simply a new pair of eyes that can help you see your search experience from a new perspective. Keeping your audience small also lets you spend more time with each user to dig into problem areas.

Step 2: Develop an unbiased test

The hardest part of user testing is ensuring that your customers can use the site in the way they really would “in real life” — without guidance from you. That means that you don’t want to lead them, instruct them, or offer any bias with your directions.

Instead, ask your users to look for something they’ve bought recently or intend to buy soon.  Let them use your search features in the ways that they would naturally, rather than in the way you prescribe. Remember, you’re looking for realistic responses. After all, when other users are searching your website, you won’t be there to hand-hold them.

Before you start, make a list of features or behaviors you’re watching for, and make notes to see if they use them.  (It’s often useful to videotape user sessions so that you can keep your attention on the user instead of being distracted with notes.)  Some things you might look for are:

  • Do they use autosuggest?
  • Do they employ broad or specific search terms?
  • Do the terms they type in match those that your search engine recognizes?
  • Do they filter results after performing a search?
  • Do they compare products, prices, or other features?
  • Do they paginate through the search results or make a decision based on the first page of results?
  • Is your search engine fast enough to keep up with their browsing activity?

Considering these factors can give you a better sense of what features your customers use naturally, as well as giving you more information about the ways you want to tweak your search features. However, you’ll only be able to tell how your test subjects are searching if you give them one specific directive: to think aloud as they move through the website.

After the subject has finished navigating through the website, ask them what could be done to improve their experience. You’ll be surprised at how clearly users can articulate what they’d prefer to see.

Step 3: Repeat until patterns emerge naturally

Ultimately, you need a critical mass of customers to draw conclusions about your search experience. While it’s hard not to be swayed by the frustrations of a single user, you don’t want to base your conclusions solely on one person. Wait until you have a few data points that can reveal commonalities.

Once similar user issues start to develop, you can then organize them, determine which problems are most common and consider solutions to user issues.

While user testing is invaluable to creating useful search experiences, small-scale usability testing isn’t always enough to solve every issue. At Constructor.io, we’ve seen surprising issues that have frustrated users and limited conversions.

If you’re nervous that user testing isn’t enough to spot your search issues, let us offer you our feedback that we’ve gathered over years of extensive data collection.