If you’ve done at least a moderate amount of research, and you know your audiences well — who they are and what they’re seeking — you have a pretty good shot at success with your website. But what happens when the performance of your website or application is a critical component of your business strategy? Assuming the time and expense associated with traditional usability testing is out of reach, how can you learn, without a doubt, how your visitors use, and what they really think of, your website?

The good news is there are several excellent — and affordable — online tools designed to help you and your quest for a more effective website. Here are four I recommend you explore in more detail.

Google Analytics
Google Analytics is a service offered by Google that generates detailed statistics about a website’s traffic and traffic sources and measures conversions and sales.

While Analytics can show you that, “people in California, responding to an email campaign, using a mobile device” spend more time on your site, view more pages, and have a lower bounce rate than a sampling of all your visitors combined, the service does not allow you to directly engage with your visitors to better understand their needs and expectations. For that, you need to look into a service like SurveyMonkey.

SurveyMonkey is an extremely powerful, yet relatively easy to use service that lets you design and manage online surveys. SurveyMonkey lets you design surveys to gather both qualitative, and quantitative data. And your surveys can be simple – or quite complex – depending on your need.

Using SurveyMonkey’s convenient dashboard, you can:

  • Design and edit your survey, including question sets and logic
  • Edit and archive your surveys
  • Distribute your survey by email, your website, blog and social networks
  • View raw data and and create a variety of simple and in-depth reports
  • Share the results of your survey with others

One of my favorite things about SurveyMonkey is that it’s easy – and free to get started, so there’s no excuse not to try it now.

Crazy Egg
If you want an quick and easy way to see how visitors are interacting with your website, Crazy Egg might just be for you. To use the service, simply copy a snippet of code to the web pages on your site that you want to test. Crazy Egg will then provide four ways to view how your visitors are using your website — each designed to take the guesswork out of your page optimization efforts.

  • CrazyEgg’s Heatmaps are snapshots of where people are clicking on a page. Each time someone clicks on your page, Crazy Egg records it and lumps it with all the other visitors’ clicks into “hotspots” – the areas on your page that are getting the most clicks.
  • Scrollmaps show how far down the page your visitors are scrolling. This is helpful in determining if your visitors are willing to  scroll far enough down the page to see critical content such as your call to action.
  • CrazyEgg’s Confetti View shows the exact places people are clicking on your page. Unlike heatmaps (which shows blobs of clicks all together), the Confetti View shows each unique click on a page, represented by a color coded dot indicating referrers, geo locations, browser types and more.
  • Finally, CrazyEgg’s Overlay View allows you to easily see the number of clicks each link on your page is getting and the percentage of total clicks that link receives. This information is not nearly as detailed as that which is provided by Google Analytics, but it is convenient if you happen to be using CrazyEgg for any of the other views.

If you’re looking for a way to see first-hand how your visitors are interacting with your site, or you want answers to very specific questions about what others think of your website, UserTesting.com may be right for you. UserTesting allows you to design and manage usability tests using wireframes, prototypes, and live mobile and desktop sites, but its real power comes from your ability to watch and listen to real people – using their normal computer or mobile device, as they complete tasks and answer questions you design – all in real time.

Designing a usability test is not automatic, and does take a little time to do it right. The more experience you have designing such tests, the more successful your test will be. That said, the service provides lots of documentation, tips and virtual coaching and technical support is quite good.

When your test is ready, UserTesting.com assigns it to your pre-defined number of test subjects – all matching criteria you specify. The tests are then completed – usually within 1-2 working days. Your can easily track the test’s progress on your account dashboard. From there, you can view each subjects written responses to the questions in your test. Most importantly, you can view, save and annotate the real-time video each test subject completing the tasks you assigned them.

In addition to the reports you would expect to find, UserTesting lets you know how long your test took to complete, its completion rate, and suggestions from your test subjects – all intended to help you improve your test design skills the next time around.

So there you have it. Four outstanding ways you can learn what your visitors truly think of your website. I hope you’ll take some time to experiment with each of them – then put your knowledge to work making your website the very best it can be.

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