December 3, 2008, 12:00 AM

‘Natural’ testing leads to new web site features for SonyStyle’s remote usability testing is translating into new web site features, such as customer ratings and reviews, and is driving a review of its product and merchandising categories. is committed to measuring its web site visitors’ browsing and shopping habits, and executives with the online consumer electronics retailing arm of manufacturer Sony Corp. believe the results are more meaningful when they come from the user’s natural setting. So instead of bringing a focus group to a usability testing lab, SonyStyle goes to the visitor, by using remote testing and analysis technology.

The result is more honest and practical data, says Brian Beaver,’s creative director. “Traditional usability testing is conducted in a lab setting,” he explains. “You recruit what you believe is a representative group, bring them in, offer them some M&Ms; and tell them what you believe is a task they would conduct. Then you observe their behavior. But that’s not the way people shop online. It’s a very messy, very organic process.”

Since SonyStyle implemented remote usability testing in July, the company has installed new web site features, including customer ratings and reviews in November. The e-retailer also is working on making its product and merchandising categories more distinctive. “The results show that the way we were presenting merchandise looked the same as on other sites,” says vice president of consumer direct sales and general manager Dan Stevenson. “There wasn’t much differentiation in some cases.”

Without disclosing any budget specifics, Stevenson says that remote usability testing can save “considerable amounts of money and turnaround time.” Cost savings can be about half on the low end for using special software and an outside analysis firm compared with the cost of lab-based testing, and as much as two-thirds on the high end, he says.

As a result of user testing,, No. 13 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, also is looking to add more community network features to its web site and improve the quality of images and video for products such as flat panel TVs. “We are trying to improve the customer experience,” Stevenson says. “If we can make shopping more effortless for them it makes them more confident in their buying decisions.”

The remote usability testing process yielded some other revelations, for instance helping SonyStyle identify what it labeled the “Ten Tab Syndrome,” Beaver says. “We noticed the number of tabs users have open across their browser,” he says. “They aren’t shopping on a single site, they are rapidly flipping through multiple sites to check products and do their research. That’s something we may not have discovered with past testing.”

That behavior told SonyStyle that there were gaps in some manufacturers’ product information. “And it can tell us about more information that we might want to include,” Beaver says.

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