Usability studies are the first step in understanding how users navigate your website- By Marilyn Mages, CAE

By Adam Natali posted 01-21-2020 13:02


By Marilyn Mages, CAE

Undertaking a website redesign is something that every organization will experience at some point. So a few questions that all association staff must ask prior to getting started include: What is going to drive our decisions? And how do these concepts meet user’s expectations as well as meet the needs of the current content strategy.

Sandy Marsico, founder and CEO, Sandstorm Design, believes that UX design (user experience) starts with understanding a user’s motivations and behaviors. To get the needed answers, she encourages her clients to conduct a usability study on their existing site to uncover how things could work more efficiently. The results from this study then move into a more robust site architecture and content discovery process providing insights into functional and content requirements.

“The beauty in starting with the usability study is that there are no wrong answers,” says Marsico. “We only need five to six people in a particular user group to identify 80 percent of the usability issues. One study provides us the information we need to understand the thought process, motivations and behaviors of completing a certain task.”

She says this because most people will look for things in a similar manner. The usability study starts by asking users to complete a series of tasks. This is not a focus group to get opinions, it is strictly used to see how people find items on the organization’s website. For example, participants are asked to:

  • Find the latest magazine article
  • Join the association
  • Register for the annual meeting
  • Find a member

Sandstorm asks participants to use a “Think aloud approach”, asking them to share aloud their thoughts as they move the mouse and complete the task.

Participants are asked to complete a series of tasks that include, “It’s time to renew your dues online. Where would you go?” Or, “Find the latest Journal articles.” As they attempt to complete the task, the outcomes drive changes to a web site or web application to make it easier to use.

Marsico has found in more than 3,400 hours of UX research, that people tend to respond the same way. The goal of a usability study is to identify any usability problems, determine what works and what doesn’t, and inform design – all while reducing the subjectivity. The process helps discover how users engage and immerse themselves online.

This study also helps find discrepancies in how members and staff refer to programs. Think about it, what does your organization call your member referral program? It could be “Member-Get-A-Member”, “Member Ambassador”, or even something else. Just as leaders and members bucket information differently, so does staff and members.

“You need to take the user perspective into account to see how they look for information, how they use web applications, and how they bucket the information they are trying to find,” she says.

In working with neurosurgeons, for example, Sandstorm discovered that it was important for the content to be the priority, by getting stock imagery out of the way. As well if there was an image, then it needs to have relevance like a CT or MRI scan. On the contrary, commercial realtors wanted a more visual and immersive brand experience.

In the end, starting with how users look for items provides some needed background information when moving to a new site. For those interested in learning more about usability studies, Sandstorm frequently conducts them at their offices in their usability lab. Search for @sandstormdesign on Facebook for information or visit

Marilyn Mages as worked in associations for 20 years. She currently works as the Director of Marketing and Membership at the American Academy of Implant Dentistry and can be reached at