Don’t Leave Conversion and Usability for Last

It used to be an easy target to warn against only thinking about search engine friendliness after a site was built, every few weeks another “seo expert” would come out and tell stories of entirely built sites that had to be re-engineered to allow spiders the best possible access to its content. And while, at least in my little corner of the web world, that lesson has been learned and is starting to sound redundant and obvious, those who refuse to learn from past mistakes will repeat them.

These days I’m finding it very common that things like conversion and usability based on real user testing and analytics data are only being thought of after a site is built. Often highly arbitrary “best practices” guidelines are followed (or not) during an entirely aesthetically-driven design process, that leads to a pretty looking site that has a huge bounce rate and horrible conversions. Then 6 months or a year later an analyst is called in and clicktracks is expected to save the day.

Some common reasons justifying this I’ve heard are “user testing is too expensive” (sure, but its less expensive than doing a free redesign for the client because their site looks nifty, but doesn’t make them any money), or that only after a site is live do you have “real” data. Thats true only in the narrowest analytics sense of the word, qualitative user testing is certainly possible with 5 to 8 subjects before a site is live, and if even that is too much to ask, someone with knowledge of usability and conversion enhancement should be involved in early in the design process, not just graphic designers.

Jakob Nielson’s most recent alertbox columm touches on this a little:

Having a good designer doesn’t eliminate the need for a systematic usability process. Risk reduction and quality improvement both require user testing and other usability methods.

Designers are just that, designers, not user experience or interaction specialist, and certainly not target users.

And on a side note, I’m curious, what would you guys call an “average” homepage bounce rate?