Ever had one of those “aha” moments with your website? You know, that instant when you suddenly realize you’ve been doing something wrong for a long time?

What is your site’s stumbling block? Confusing navigation? Broken links? A tedious checkout? Odds are, there’s something hindering the performance of your website. Since it’s usually challenging to catch our own mistakes, here’s 6 ideas for how to discover them with the help of others.

  1. Use Screen Recording Software: One of the most powerful research tools I use for companies is in-house usability testing. Here’s how it works: First, we obtain a small number of users willing to be part of the research, ideally people who are unfamiliar with the company’s website. Then we sit them down on a computer and ask them to perform actions on the site. Common actions include making a purchase, contacting customer service, or looking up order tracking info. We record their on-screen actions using free screen capture software by CamStudio. Then we review the recordings, noticing how long it takes for visitors to complete an action. Using this method, it’s easy to observe when customers are lost or confused. On each and every occasion we’ve used this method, we’ve discovered a problematic issue needing attention.
  2. Use Visual Web Analytics: Traditional analytics are great, but alternative web analytics solutions offering a more visual approach are becoming increasingly useful. Google Analytics offers a sometimes overlooked Site Overlay feature that does a decent job of showing site owners just how people travel through their site. Visual analytics allows you to see where people go and under what conditions. This approach creates big picture perspective of how customers are interacting with your site.
  3. Ask Your Customer Service Team: Don’t forget that your customer service team usually has the best read on the pulse of your customers. They hear day-in and day-out what people complain about. Make sure there always exists a feedback loop from the customer, to customer service, to the management of your operation.
  4. See What Others See: Not everyone who visits your site is using Internet Explorer, a Windows machine, and 1024 x 768 resolution. BrowserShots.org offers a free, innovative way to see your site in dozens of different configurations, including different browsers, OS’s, and with or without Flash and JavaScript. You might be unpleasantly surprised by the differences in the way browsers render your site. Users with smaller screen resolutions will often not notice site features that are below the page fold. Seeing your site in a variety of perspectives will help you cast a wide net, optimizing for as many user configurations as reasonably possible.
  5. Setup Error Notifications: The larger your site, the more likely you are to experience errors resulting from broken hyperlinks or programming issues. Talk with your web developer and ask him to setup a system that notifies you every time a 404 (page not found) or 500 (internal server error) occurs on your site. You might be surprised how often errors occur. When we set this up for one of my clients, they discovered the disconcerting fact that they were receiving hundreds of errors per day.
  6. Ask an Expert: Lastly, it never hurts to get the opinion of another professional. While many small businesses can’t necessarily afford a full or even part time web usability consultant, hiring an expert for a few hours to review your website can be eye-opening. Many of my customers who purchase MySitePlan do so in order to get a second opinion in preparation for a site redesign, or they’re just looking for ways to improve that they haven’t considered before.

No one loves a shocking revelation about a dysfunctional website feature. To make matters worse, it’s usually someone else, a customer or a collegue that discovers these issues and informs us. Hopefully, the suggestions above will help you discover any existing problems with your website and resolve them quickly.