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Low Cost Usability Testing for Banks and Credit Unions Pays Big Dividends

When was the last time you conducted a simple usability test on your website? Are you conducting usability tests on a monthly basis? If you’re like most website managers, then it’s probably been awhile since your last test, if you’ve done one at all. But if you’re not conducting regular usability testing to identify and fix issues on your website, you’re leaving money on the table. And yes, this even applies to websites that don’t directly sell products online.

Retail powerhouses like Amazon.com constantly conduct usability tests. They understand that improving even one feature that results in a .05% sales increase can easily pay for a single testing session many times over.

Of course, Amazon.com has a luxury that many site owners do not – an enormous testing budget. But you don’t have to spend huge sums of money or time to obtain extremely valuable usability testing results.

Before I discuss some simple, low-cost testing guidelines, first let’s dispel a few myths about usability tests:

  1. Usability testing requires a significant investment in high tech labs with two-way mirrors, expensive software and white-coated PhDs
  2. Worthwhile results can only come from days or weeks of testing with rigorous scientific analysis
  3. Test participants must be from a carefully screened and selected pool of users who perfectly fit the website’s demographic
  4. Testing only needs to be done when sites are redesigned or when major changes are made
  5. Website managers and website designers are the best people

Ok, but what is the benefit of usability testing?

Even simple usability tests can reveal eye opening deficiencies in websites, especially bank and credit union sites that feature loan applications, product selectors, online banking and vast amounts of financial product information. For example, consider these three cases with clients who came to us for help in identifying issues on their websites:

  1. A large credit union mortgage lender asked us for help improving completion rates on their online mortgage application. 

    What we found was that a large number of the mortgage applications were being completed by people while they were at work. One of the required questions on the application asked for information that most people were not able to answer without having access to their prior year’s tax return. Few people have access to their tax returns while at work.

    Our client modified the question slightly, along with a few other improvements identified from testing, and saw a 37% increase in completed mortgage loan applications.

    The application had been online for nearly six months before they came to us asking for help figuring out why so many applications were being abandoned. If even 10% of those abandoned applications had been completed during that six months, the fees from those applications would’ve paid for our services several times over.
  2. One credit union learned through testing that most users were not aware of a valuable free service it offered members on its website because the wording and placement of the navigation element was not clear. We repositioned and renamed the navigation link and saw an increase from less than 300 page views per day to over 2,100 per day almost immediately.
  3. One of our bank clients allowed customers to submit support and customer service requests through a secure form on its website. They were frustrated that many customers would call the bank shortly after submitting their question to ask the same question on the telephone.

    When customers submitted the online customer support request, the bank showed a generic confirmation page that simply thanked the customer for his inquiry and said “someone will respond to your inquiry soon.”

    “But when?”, customers wondered.

    We learned through usability testing that showing the customer an inquiry tracking number, as well as a specific estimated response time on the confirmation page reduced the number of calls dramatically. Customers felt more comfortable that their inquiry was being handled by seeing a tracking number and response time estimate.


While we recommend that our clients perform site reviews on a quarterly basis, Steve Krug, in his book on simple usability testing processes, Rocket Surgery Made Easy, suggests performing the tests on a monthly basis.

As Steve points out in his book, this simple type of usability testing need not be expensive nor time consuming. While I won’t go into the full details of preparing, conducting and analyzing the tests in this post, the basic guidelines for low cost usability tests are:

  1. Conduct testing once per quarter or anytime you plan to release new features or significant changes to your website
  2. Use a service like UserTesting.com to find test participants and leverage their technology to aide in the process
  3. Choose participants who represent a mix of people within your target demographic, but also include at least a handful who fall outside that group. An outsider’s perspective can be quite enlightening.
  4. Identify tasks based on areas where you think your site is weak and write down scenarios for your participants to complete. Keep time limitations in mind when planning tasks.
  5. Most importantly, work together with your website developers to plan all aspects of the testing so that they can understand what your testing and why. In fact, you should involve all stakeholders who have decision making power over your website’s content, features and design.

An overview of a simple test

Now assemble your designers, programmers and other website stakeholders together on a conference call, Google Hangout, or in person. Create and review your test scenarios to ensure that they're easy for testers to understand and that they're testing the correct desired outcomes.

Your test participants, if using a service like UserTesting.com, will step through your scenarios and record both their screen and their verbalized thoughts while conducting your tests. In many cases you will receive your test results within hours of launching the test.

Once you’ve completed your testing with all of your participants, meet with your web team and identify the key issues that you want to fix or improve on your website and set a plan to get it done.

Testing, done right, pays for itself

I cannot cite a single instance where our clients did not receive payback on usability testing that far exceeded the costs to conduct the testing. With even a modest budget of $500 per quarter, most banks and credit unions will gain value that far outweighs the costs, especially for interactive website features like forms or multi-step processes.

If you haven’t conducted a usability test recently – or ever – then get it on your schedule for next month. Even if your website hasn’t changed in three years, users’ expectations and skill levels have. Regular usability testing and website refinement using the test results will be the single best investment you can make into your website.

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