When building a website most people give most attention to the front page. After all, that’s probably the page that will be viewed most often ((Although, if most of your traffic comes from google searches, or deep linking from other sites, both of which we’ll talk more about later, that may not even be true)). One or two other key pages probably get quite a lot of care and attention too. But after that there’s usually a sharp drop-off, with many pages looking like they were simply knocked up in 15 minutes by a developer who hasn’t had his morning coffee fix yet.
This is often the cause of the great disconnect between what you and your friends think of your site, and what the rest of the world thinks of it — you judge your site by its best bits, but people who actually use it judge it by its worst. When it comes to a great user experience, every page matters.
A well known large corporation, renowned for making job applicants go through many, many rounds of interviews, uses one of those interviews in a very simple and effective way. In it the interviewer takes one single point mentioned on the candidate’s CV/resumé, and quizzes them on it in-depth for an hour. The vast majority of people have something in there that, even if it’s not an outright lie, is still somewhat embellished, or wishful thinking — maybe an exaggerated account of what they achieved at a previous job, or a skill they haven’t actually used since that one job 10 years ago, or an interest that’s really been dormant since college. Pretty much everyone has something in there that’s unlikely to withstand an hour of deep questioning.
On a semi-regular basis you should carry out a similar process for your site. Whether this is something you’re actively in the process of building right now, or something that’s been running happily for 10 years, pick a single page, grab everyone you can (and maybe some pizza) and spend a hour digging into it in painful detail.
Look at it in several different ways. Print it out and hand it around — some copies in colour, some in black and white. Blow it up on a big screen or projector. Look at it on a mobile phone. Listen to it on a screenreader. Even look at it upside down. Can people tell at a glance what page it it is? How do people get there — both from within the expected flow, and also from elsewhere: do people come to it from Google searches? If so, for what? Has anyone ever linked directly to it from Twitter? Why? What can you do on the page? Where can you go next?
If you have real facts and statistics about all these things that’s good (you should!), but don’t look at them until after you’ve discussed what you think the results will be. Then try to work out why the answers are different (they will be). Try to look at the page through fresh eyes. Then go find some people who’ve never used the site and see how their fresh eyes differ from yours. Don’t even tell them what the site is: what can they tell just from looking from this page? If they found themselves on this page, what would they think they should do? Why does that differ from what you think they should do? If this was the only page they ever saw, what would they think of your organisation? Does it entice them to want to discover more, or do more? Or do they just shrug their shoulders and return to Facebook as quickly as possible?
Again, if your TODO list doesn’t grow dramatically from this exercise, you’re doing it wrong.