We're big fans of user testing. Why? It's probably the easiest and most reliable way to see if what you're doing - especially on the web - is actually working and connecting with your audience.

While we learn something new or intriguing each time we test, we also start to notice trends, patterns and shifts in the way people are interacting with websites. Over the past year or so in particular, we've noticed a few significant behavioral shifts in how users are interacting with websites. In fact, we just got back from conducting user testing with a couple of clients including the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business. We conducted task analysis tests with current students, prospective students, faculty and staff members, and collected some insightful findings that we'd like to share.

  • ‘Above the fold’ is so five years ago. Gone are the days of needing to put all important information ‘above the fold’ of a web page. Thanks to tablets and mobile devices, people are okay with scrolling and swiping through websites. In fact, some studies show that conversion rates were actually better when the form was below the fold. Today it’s less about getting important content ‘above the fold’ and more about providing your users with the good content that they are searching for regardless of where it falls on the page.

  • Users LOVE them some gateways! If you're not familiar with them, user gateways are single pages on a website that aggregate links to all (or most) content on a website pertinent to a particular audience. You might see them labeled as 'Info for:' pages (Info for: Future Students, Current Students, Alumni, Parents, Faculty & Staff, etc). And based on testing sessions we've conducted over the past few years, users love them. What's not to love? By putting links to all of the information that they want in one, neatly organized place, you make life a lot easier and more convenient for them. After all, the last thing people want to do is dig through your website to find the information they want/need. And while a solid navigation structure should ease the burden on users, 'user gateways' deliver this information on a silver platter.

  • Not your mom’s search. More and more people today are using a search box or engine as their first means for finding information on a website. In fact, we’ve seen a lot of users who use search as their only method of finding information, completely overlooking the global navigation on a website. So what does this mean to you? The big thing is making sure your search functionality works well. The last thing you want is for a prospect to search for application deadlines and end up on a page of search results that doesn’t have what they’re looking for. Chances are that they’ll leave your site and never come back. If they do come back, they’ll certainly have a bad taste in their mouth.

So what does this all mean?

As you can see, your target audience is constantly evolving in the way that they navigate through and search for information on your website. However, most of these shifts are due to users' reactions to things like technological advances in the devices we are using (swiping on mobile devices and tablets), changes and improvements to search algorithms and reactions to the multitudes of raw content on the web.

Because of this, it’s critical that you conduct user testing to ensure that your website is changing as your audience does.

Have you conducted user testing before on a new site or even your current website? If so, have you had any a-ha moments that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear about your adventures in user testing so feel free to leave your responses in the comments section.