Traditionally, to find out how you should best design and structure your site you might do some testing on a sample of users. There’s lots of ways of doing this, from giving them a set of thing to find on your site and timing this through to tracking users eye movements as they look at different pages. If you feel a strong, overwhelming desire to irritate, you could always set up an entry and exit survey on your site.

The weird thing about humans is that <shock horror> what they say they would do and what they actually think and do might be quite different. Coca Cola found this out with New Coke.

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the mistake that Coca Cola made of basing decisions on sip tests, where a drinker is given only a small sample.

although many consumers react positively to the sweeter taste of Pepsi when drinking it in small volumes, it may become unattractively sickly when drunk in quantity. Coke, on the other hand, may be more attractive for drinking in volume, precisely because it is less sweet.

So, while focus groups and testing are certainly useful and valid approaches, there are a number of reasons why something might test one way but return a very different result in real, day to day existence. In the case of a web site, you might have a myriad ideas on how to improve something. Different ideas might apply to different pages. Unfortunately there is a practical limit to the number of different experiences you might be able to ask your test subject about. Oh- unless you are Google and you have lots of pigeons.

MV testing involves running a live test on your web site. Each time a new user comes on to the site, they get assigned a set of variations. We can then measure how well a particular element or group of elements perform. This might be on one page, or it might be across every page in the site.

We might change visual things such as the colour or size of images/text. We could change the way things are described or titled. We might change navigation or page layout. Each user visiting the site gets assigned a particular set of variations, and these can get tracked against a control to see how well that performs.

The first step is to work out what we’re trying to get your user to do. For the kind of work Red Ant does, this usually involves completing a signup form or buying something. So getting users through to that is the goal.

Next is to come up with some ideas around how we might convince them to get to the goal.

Say your site sells vegetables. One way to sell your vegetables might be to list all of them on the home page. Or we might want only the best sellers. Or maybe only the cheapest. Or the ones that get most organic search traffic.

The vegetables might be listed alphabetically, or organised into groups like root vegetables. By colour might look nice. I like using lots of garlic when I cook spinach, so perhaps some kind of grouping by recipe might work well.

Depending on the number of things we’re trying to test and volume of traffic through the site, we can start to see what is working and what isnt. we’ve been working with Accenture and their tool xOs, and that does some cool things like start to tune the site over time. So as some variations start to out perform others, more traffic starts getting directed to these variations. This usually means an even bigger lift in performance against the control site.

The MV approach isn’t suitable for all sites. It can be complicated and takes a while to set up. Tests take a while to run, and you might not get a clear winner. Its easy to get wowed with the technology, but not actually achieve anything. Garbage in usually means garbage out.

But when everything does click into place, we’ve seen some terrific improvements in site performance. And it is certainly very interesting work to do- in terms of both design and the actual build.

Some links you might find useful: