Usability Studies Are the First Step in Understanding How Users Navigate Your Website

Undertaking a website redesign is something that every organization will experience at some point.

By Marilyn Mages, CAE

Young designers planning work together on website ux app development.

Sandy Marsico Founder & CEO Sandstorm Design

Sandy Marsico is the founder and CEO of Sandstorm Design, a Chicago-based US, digital and creative agency. From humble beginnings to being featured on CNBC and making Chicago’s 101 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For, Marsico has been featured in Fortune, Inc Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, Crain’s Chicago Business, NBC, Communication Arts, and The Globe and Mail. She will be a speaker at Holiday Showcase 2019 on December 17.


Sandy Marsico, founder and CEO, Sandstorm Design, believes that UX design (user experience) starts with understanding a user’s motivations and behaviors. To get the needed answers, she encourages her clients to conduct a usability study on their existing site to uncover how things could work more efficiently. The results from this study then move into a more robust site architecture and content discovery process providing insights into functional and content requirements.

“The beauty in starting with the usability study is that there are no wrong answers,” says Marsico. “We only need five to six people in a particular user group to identify 80 percent of the usability issues. One study provides us the information we need to understand the thought process, motivations and behaviors of completing a certain task.”

She says this because most people will look for things in a similar manner. The usability study starts by asking users to complete a series of tasks. This is not a focus group to get opinions, it is strictly used to see how people find items on the organization’s website. For example, participants are asked to:

  • Find the latest magazine article
  • Join the association
  • Register for the annual meeting
  • Find a member

Sandstorm asks participants to use a “Think aloud approach”, asking them to share aloud their thoughts as they move the mouse and complete the task.

Participants are asked to complete a series of tasks that include, “It’s time to renew your dues online. Where would you go?” Or, “Find the latest Journal articles.” As they attempt to complete the task, the outcomes drive changes to a web site or web application to make it easier to use.

Marsico has found in more than 3,400 hours of UX research, that people tend to respond the same way. The goal of a usability study is to identify any usability problems, determine what works and what doesn’t, and inform design – all while reducing the subjectivity. The process helps discover how users engage and immerse themselves online.

This study also helps find discrepancies in how members and staff refer to programs. Think about it, what does your organization call your member referral program? It could be “Member-Get-A-Member”, “Member Ambassador”, or even something else. Just as leaders and members bucket information differently, so does staff and members.

“You need to take the user perspective into account to see how they look for information, how they use web applications, and how they bucket the information they are trying to find,” she says.

In working with neurosurgeons, for example, Sandstorm discovered that it was important for the content to be the priority, by getting stock imagery out of the way. As well if there was an image, then it needs to have relevance like a CT or MRI scan. On the contrary, commercial realtors wanted a more visual and immersive brand experience.

In the end, starting with how users look for items provides some needed background information when moving to a new site.

About the Author

Marilyn Mages is the director of marketing and membership at the American Academy of Implant Dentistry and can be reached at marilyn@aaid.com.

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