When designing a website, app or system, it is crucial to consider the users we are designing for and their different needs. It is for this reason that we build benchmark usability testing into our early design process. It is a quick and effective way to identify the common and distinct problems people experience, as well as to understand some the common and distinct needs that they might have.

We recently worked with CarExpert.com.au, Australia’s largest new car-only website. Unsurprisingly, the team are experts when it comes to cars (the clue is in the name). They really do know their stuff and they publish a vast amount of informative and impartial car reviews, car news and car comparisons to help car buyers make better and more informed decisions.

Whilst the CarExpert website has always catered well to expert readers and car enthusiasts, the team needed to figure out ways they might better support regular car buyers discover cars when they don’t know what they are looking for. As experts in their field, it was difficult for the CarExpert team to really understand the perspective of someone who doesn’t know everything there is about cars.

So, before jumping into design, we took a step back and conducted benchmark usability testing on the CarExpert website and competitor car websites so that we might understand more about how people approach their search for a new car.

We made sure to talk to people who considered themselves knowledgeable about cars, as well as those who didn’t know much. We needed to ensure that we captured the needs of both types of user so as not to alienate the needs of CarExpert’s highly engaged and faithful user base of car enthusiasts.

During usability testing, we asked people to complete search related tasks using the CarExpert website and competitor car websites whilst ‘thinking out loud’ to articulate their thought process. In this way, we can observe true-to-life user behaviour whilst gathering insights into how tools might be made more intuitive to their needs. It also gives us an opportunity to talk to people about how they make decisions.

We learned that the thought process a car buyer goes through depends on how far down the research track they are. Someone who has not yet formed a shortlist is thinking about what they will be useing the car for and the kind of budget they have to work within. They don’t want to limit their search too soon for fear of missing cars that could suit them. They recognise that they don’t yet know what they don’t know.

Instead, they want to be helped through the process of making a shortlist, which they then work on refining further, whether it be narrowing it down or widening out with comparable options.

Based on these insights, we designed a search tool which supported regular car buyers to discover cars that are best suited to their needs. Iterative usability testing helped us to validate and refine our designs to deliver an intuitive tool that effectively supports people to find their next new car. Check out the Car Chooser.

People who have already done some research and formed an idea of the car they want to buy move on to seek reassurance around their choices. They rely more heavily on the detailed and informative reviews published by the CarExpert team, and are guided by the expert scores and reviews to validate that their choice is a good one. They also seek out owner reviews to make sure people with lived experience of the vehicle recommend it, as well as look for whether their shortlisted car makes and models are popular with others – the importance of social proof cannot be underestimated.

Armed with these insights, along with many more nuanced findings, Kickstand redesigned the CarExpert homepage and the navigation categorisation to provide multiple roads into website content with the goal of helping people find what they are looking for no matter the extent of their research to date nor their knowledge of the car market.

We tested our designs to make sure that they were useful and intuitive for regular car buyers as well as car experts and enthusiasts. We know that experts rely less on search mechanisms and functional tools given their degree of car knowledge and we didn’t want to risk the new designs alienating them. We therefore designed a way for them to Activate Expert Mode, ensuring that that content of most interest to them could be prioritised at the tap of a button.

We love the way the redesign has turned out as, it seems, do CarExpert’s users.

“It’ll probably take me a little while to get used to the new site, but so far so good. Good on CE for increasing its mainstream appeal (where the money is) without alienating the rusted-on enthusiast community that hopped over from the old site.” – Tone