I had a rare opportunity recently: the perfect usability test.
I sat down one on one with high school seniors and had them test a soon-to-launch college website for usability — during the fall, when they’re actively thinking about where they want to apply. In short, I replicated the exact audience, time frame, and mindset that colleges and universities are most interested in understanding.
I’d like to share three key insights with you. (But remember: This is a small sample size from a single high school and not representative of every senior everywhere!)
1. Scrolling is a hard-wired reflex.
Every senior scrolled the entire length of the page to find things, and some pages were quite long. In fact, many testers scrolled back to the top and then down again in their pursuit of particularly difficult-to-find information.
We often hear arguments about what should be “above and below the scroll” — but this group strongly suggested that there isn’t really any argument at all.
2. Statistics were very popular and effective.
I hoped they would be, because we featured statistics prominently on the home page and academic program pages of the site we were testing. Quick-hitting numbers on student-to-faculty ratios, average class sizes, and numbers of credit hours were universally praised, with most participants mentioning, sometimes multiple times, that they really liked their inclusion.
It speaks to the fact that seniors are in the midst of a complex decision-making process. They want (and appreciate) something that lets them quickly understand the landscape before they’ve read even a full sentence.
3. Mental models build themselves rapidly.
We asked participants to complete a number of tasks, including finding certain pieces of information and taking certain actions (such as applying). They didn’t have too much trouble, which I took as a sign that we had done our jobs well.
What really struck me was how quickly these seniors shortcut the later tasks during testing. In a matter of minutes, they mapped out the site structure and interactions. They identified what to do or where to go and said, “I already know I’d just go ‘right here’ because I saw it earlier” — even though that label, or that information, was not explicitly mentioned until that moment.
Even when focused on a particular task, the mind is taking in the peripheral terrain around it and subconsciously figuring it out. Well-organized and ‑designed websites aren’t only easier to use, but they also get easier and easier cumulatively over a very short period of time.