How only 4 usability tests lead to a 9% increase in conversion rate

By: Sarah Gourlie

For: Digital Marketers, new UX designers

My aim is to give confidence to digital marketers and User Experience designers to invest in scaled-down, customized Strategic UX steps in web development projects, even when budgets and timelines are tight and resources are limited.

 Even the most rudimentary application of UX principles can lead to a positive impact on the bottom line. 

The key reason behind this is that these strategic UX tools inject empathy, a galvanizing factor for organizational change and focus for the project team.


So the rallying cry of the philosophy of User Experience Design is “know thy user”. However for projects that aren’t necessarily big product development, I so often see the steps of user-centered design being ignored. I hear things like “research is too costly, there isn’t budget, we’ll just have to rely on our own expertise”, “it wouldn’t be representative enough of our target audience “.

But since 2000, Jakob Nielsen has shown that “elaborate usability tests are a waste of resources. The best results come from testing no more than 5 users and running as many small tests as you can afford”.  In fact, it was shown that just 5 users can uncover the majority of the usability issues.

But project teams are still reluctant to engage on small-scale research and user-centered design processes like creating persona and then thinking from their perspective on their user journeys.  The reality though, is that it’s so quick and easy to do that anyone with a little intent can execute this.

The reason why I believe it works, even in the roughest form, is because it brings in an aspect that is often in short supply on development project teams – empathy.

 A broad definition of empathy is “the ability to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings and the drive to respond appropriately to them, to alleviate distress”. (Prof. Simon Baron Cohen in his book  “Zero degrees of Empathy”). The Prof explains that we are genetically and neurologically programmed for empathy, which could be an evolutionary adaption that is even found in animals. According to him, empathy is one of humanities greatest resources.

Philosopher Martin Buber, while contemplating how humans can commit despicable acts of cruelty to each other, proposed that it happens at the point when a human see’s another as an object.

When I think of the way the anonymity of the internet has enabled trolling, cyber bulling and the like (just look at what happened to Monica Lewinsky – how her online attackers left her ready to commit suicide), I can’t help but wonder if Buber has uncovered why digitization, while creating a multitude of new methods to communicate, is leaving us feeling disconnected and alone.

For development teams, immersed in the digital world, it’s all too easy to see the user as an anonymous, vague object, outside of the world of the politics and budget restrictions of the project.

For marketers, similarly, it is all too easy to get stuck behind labels like race, gender, income level, rather than seeing real people with needs and goals, external pressures, interests, mental models and beliefs. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the intricacies of the branding and advertising concerns and forget who its all for.

As marketing communication practitioners, it is our job to create real connections between brands and their audience to create a mutually beneficial relationship; one that enhances people’s lives and drives business growth. The key to genuinely creating this connection is empathy.

So two of the most powerful tools in the UX designer’s toolbox, I have found, are: usability testing and persona. These two simple and scalable aspects hold the key to developing empathy in projects and ensuring user-centered design.

Case Study

In consulting with an income insurance company marketing and website development and design team, I conducted only 4 usability tests.

I only had to show a few minutes of these usability test video clips to the senior management team, together with a heuristic review and I was able to get the business to scrap existing designs, change their delivery deadline and implement a new information architecture and site structure

The power behind this extremely cost effective qualitative research was:

  •  This Usability testing observation-based technique shifts the mindset of the project team from a theoretical space to a real, practical understanding. It provides unique access to the non-verbal expressions of a real person (which accounts for up to 70% of our communication). Their mirror neurons in their brains recognised those emotions, thereby creating a connection between the project team and the hypothetical “user”. Once the team had seen the furrowed brows of confusion on their potential target audience faces, once they had heard the sighs of frustration and seen the non-verbal signals of a real person persevering but groaning under the weight of the task, did they connect, empathize and want to help make this a better experience.
  • It quelled the subjective debates between the Marketing Manager and the business owner on design issues. It also took the decisions out of the subjective zone and suddenly a third party, the user, was shedding light on the way forward.
  • It also galvanized the team. It was noticeable how the team suddenly found solutions and rallied around fixing things that had “technical limitations” before.
  • One of the best consequences was that it helped to prioritise what changes were important, what made a material difference and ones that were cosmetic.
  • There were insights about the way users thought, that were broadly applicable in the business and the digital marketing team, way beyond the development of the website.

The research took no more than a few days to recruit, conduct and analyse. The 4 respondents broadly covered their socio-economic spectrum within their target audience segmentation. We did a simple test plan to cover the entire decision making process for insurance and repeated the same testing strategy with each one.

There wasn’t budget or appetite for persona to be selected and build out and documented on paper, but while providing recommendations, we imagined certain scenarios based on the target audience and discussed user journeys to see how the flow and decision points would be affected by the site. We just imagined the life, goals, resources and needs of a hypothetical person trying to perform the task of completing a lead generation form and what they needed to know as they went through the process.  This storytelling approach was also a way to create focus and powerfully affected the way the team thought.

The site went live and after a few months we measured that the conversion rate on the site went up from 11% to 20%. The commensurate increase in revenue would be applied for the life span of the site. This more than justifies these small, cost effective user-centered design steps.

I believe that this result would not have been possible if it wasn’t for injecting genuine empathy between a business and users who have amply rewarded this behavior.


WANTED: G♀♂d Programmers

Text: Michelle Marais

My first introduction to programming was in the nineties. I remember because who can forget Angelina Jolie as the badass super-hacker Kate Libby aka Acid Burn in Hackers (1995)? I also remember because shortly after watching the science fiction thriller, I donned an overly-gelled pixie cut … it was a mistake. But my hair quickly grew back and long forgotten was the impression the strong, independent Kate Libby made on me.

It wasn’t until many years later, while working at an agency, that I came across real life programmers – very few of them female. And come to think of it, besides Kate Libby and the Tokyo hacker (Naoko Mori), all the other hackers in the film were male too. Which brings me to the question: Are most women shying away from the IT industry because they’re under the impression that its a boys’ club or is there something larger at work here? Turns out it’s a bit of both.

The hard science:
On the empathy quotient (EQ) – a study into an individual’s interest in others and their emotional lives – women as a group score higher than men. On the systemising quotient (SQ) – a study into an individual’s interest in systems (maps, gadgets, forecasts, structures etc.) – men as a group score higher than women. Thus, statistically, a larger number of ‘typical male brains’ are interested in programming than their female counterparts.

The social science:
Gender discrimination aside. As a direct result of the hard science, a large number of men work (and have been for years) in the IT industry. This has resulted in the misconception that it’s an environment unfit for women – a boys club that tolerates sexism. And should a woman lay a complaint, it can mean the end of her career.  Other misconceptions, like that you have to be a math genius to excel, also contributes to the low numbers of women choosing to pursue a career in this field.

In a quest to better understand the issue at hand and to find a possible solution, I spoke to some of the Quirk’s female IT stars.


✎ “I actually applied for a position in the HR department of a bank, but when they took a look at my CV they suggested I take an aptitude test for programming. I had the afternoon free, so I agreed to do it. Before I knew it, I was on a 3-month programming course, and 20 years later I don’t regret the career move one bit.”

✎ “It was a very fortunate HR error. I went to what I thought was an interview for a print designer position – it turned out to be for web designer and I somehow landed the job. From design to front-end development, digital marketing and software – I keep going deeper down the rabbit hole and I hope it never stops.”

✎ “I used to work in HR and accidentally ended up in IT. First as a tester and now as technical delivery manager – which suits my personality perfectly. The IT industry is not just about programming, there are lots of other jobs to be done.”


✎ “One of the biggest misconceptions I’ve encountered is that people are under the impression that you require a degree in computer science to achieve in this field.  That’s nonsense. I’ve achieved various successes and I don’t have a degree-level educational background in pure technology.”

✎ “That it’s ridiculously hard and complicated; that you need to know about everything all the time; that you should learn every language and know every platform. It’s exactly not that. You will excel if you focus on one thing and work at mastering it.”


✎ “One of my biggest passions is to ensure that young girls learn the basics of code before they finish high school. Irrespective of their backgrounds and aptitude, every scholar needs to learn this as an absolute basic. We started a group called Umonya Girls a few years ago. With the help of a committed sponsor we will be able to hold workshops again. Every girl we teach to code is another woman who has the chance to move this field forward.”

✎ “Early exposure is key. Not everyone can attend an art or private school and I believe children should be exposed to basic coding while still at school. This way they’ll be able to discover whether they have an aptitude for it and form their own opinions about the industry.”

To quote Steve Jobs, kind of: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes … and the good programmers, who happen to be women. “

Measuring the right stuff, long scrolling sites, the Just Do It brief, Instagram adventures #worthwhile


If you only have time for one thing read Ana Andjelic’s provocative piece on the importance of measurement, more specifically – measuring the right things, the meaningful metrics that indicate business success:

Digital has failed to solve adland’s problem with measurement – The Guardian

“In order to figure out the way forward, marketers need to dispense with the old measurement models and instead look at how today’s fastest growing companies measure value creation.”

The critical point being made is that marketers are trying, unsuccessfully, to judge the effectiveness of ideas using thinking that applies more to the way things were.

“There is room for creativity in this world of zero mystery. Offering outstanding service based on consumer behaviours sounds drab in comparison to old-school advertising standards – but in fact, coming up with ideas that solve consumer problems in a seamless, convenient and human way requires savvy and imagination yet unseen in the industry. There are many ways to tell a story and knowing exactly what works and what doesn’t can only improve it.”


Speaking of old ways becoming less relevant, “Why long scrolling sites have become awesome” is a useful reference to understanding current web design trends where scrolling longer “sites” is replacing the notion of “pages” and even the idea of the fold, that magical part of a page where being above it equals being priority and everything below it represents secondary (or beyond) importance.

In the infancy of the Internet, scrolling was considered taboo. The myth that users didn’t like scrolling was perhaps a vestigial relic from the print industry’s “above the fold” mandate: newspapers needed to get their reader’s attention from only above the front page’s halfway fold.

This made enough sense for websites, too — whatever’s on the first screen will be what influences the user’s first impression.

Moreover, like print, old websites were mostly text, which is the hardest type of content to keep interesting with long scrolling.

However, when advances in Javascript and CSS opened up more options and sites like Facebook and Twitter broke the ice with single-page sites, designers found that users actually do scroll. In fact, studies have been conducted to back this up: they found 66 percent of user’s attention on a normal media page was spent “below the fold.” continue reading


This next one is for all marketers / clients / strategists:


“Just Do It is an example of a brand campaign that tapped deeply into the authentic character of Nike’s brand values and brand purpose. But, few people know about the internal conversations that led to the ad brief that went to Nike’s agency Wieden+Kennedy (W+K) to create the campaign.
Until now. I was there, right in the middle of it. Today on Branding Strategy Insider I’ll share how it came to be.”

The Brand Brief Behind Nike’s Just Do It Campaign


From the department of “THIS is the year of mobile”:

When Facebook started selling mobile ads in 2012, not even the keenest optimists could have predicted how big a success they would become. In each of the past ten quarters, mobile ads have accounted for more then 90% of Facebook’s revenue growth. In the first six months of 2015, all of the company’s growth came from advertising on tablets and smartphones. Mobile ad revenue now accounts for 76 percent of Facebook’s advertising revenue and 72 percent of total revenue.

Where Facebook’s Revenue Growth Comes From

Infographic: Where Facebook's Revenue Growth Comes From | Statista


The importance of storytelling within the context of marketing has never been doubted, what is becoming harder to understand is how to tell stories effectively in a mobile world where a successful 30second TV ad does not equal successful mobile video..

Unskippable Labs: The Mobile Recut (Youtube Advertisers)

Welcome to the launch of Unskippable Labs — a series of experiments in content to understand mobile video advertising from Google’s Art, Copy & Code team. The Mobile Recut took a successful ad — Mountain Dew Kickstart’s “Come Alive” — and recut it three ways to see what we could learn about how storytelling changes on mobile.


These print ads from VW are great…



First it was “The most epic safety video ever made“, now Air New Zealand is generating more buzz through the re-re-invention of the same old in-flight safety video – Men In Black Safety Defenders.. this time featuring a few of NZ’s All Black rugby stars (and a couple cameos from past rival players). It’s a great example of a brand doing a hard working job of leveraging their sponsorship of a sports team.


While not a completely new use of Instagram’s friend tagging function, Old Spice’s Choose your own adventure style Instagram experience is still really nice.

Read the picture below’s caption to get started (although it’s definitely better if you do it on your phone within instagram itself).


Real life first person shooter on Chat Roulette

We created a live action first-person zombie shooter in our garden – then invited unsuspecting people on chatroulette, omegle and skype to take control…


That’s it!

drop me a line at @thescott

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