User Research 101

How to get to know your customers (users) before you redesign your website.

When I start working with a new client and I talk about User Research, I sometimes feel a bit like a dodgy car salesman. My clients often think they know their customers well enough, and find it hard to justify investing in further research.

The trouble is, people on the ‘inside’ of an organisation are often unable to see the wood for the trees (and I say that as someone who falls prey to this in my own business too). If you’re part of a successful business enterprise or organisation you’ll know your customer base, but things change, and so do the people you serve.

Is it possible that you’re leaving a market segment to your competition because your assumptions are missing the mark?

In this article, I’m going to walk you through some options, help you get a better understanding of what User Research actually involves and share some of the techniques and tools you can use to increase the likelihood of a successful project and a positive return on your investment.

What are the benefits of User Research? Why does it matter?

It goes without saying that the more effort you put into learning about the people who are using your digital platforms, the more likely it is that you’ll create something that they will love to use. But what’s the business case for User Research?

For every $1 spent on UX, you can expect an ROI of somewhere in the range of $2 and $100. That’s 100% to 9000% return on your investment.
Yes, you read that right.

The ROI of User Experience.
  • Developers/programmers spend 50% of their time reworking a project.
  • The cost of fixing an error after development is 100x that of fixing it before the project is completed.
  • 3 of the top 12 reasons a project will fail can be avoided with UX Design.

It doesn’t stop there, user research allows you to:

  • make informed decisions based on user needs and data
  • ensure what you create isn’t biased by internal opinion and assumptions
  • test and validate your ideas whilst it’s relatively easy/inexpensive to respond to what you discover
  • spend your budget working on things that matter, and will increase the return on your investment.

Big companies are spending big on UX and you can see why. So what about everyone else? How can we work with what we have to cash in on the benefits of user research?

Getting started with Lean User Research

What do you already know about your users?

Before you begin a new website or product design, collect everything you already know about your users. If you already have User Personas, great. If you have user interviews or survey responses (even if they’re from ages years ago), dig them out and see if they’re still relevant, still your target customer.

In addition to past research, it’s worth touching base with the people within your organisation that already know a lot about the people you serve and support:

  • What are the recurring questions current and potential customers have when talking to your customer service teams and sales staff?
  • What are the main objections your sales & marketing crew respond to before someone does business with you?
  • What does your IT department already know from Google Analytics and other digital data streams? What are the quantitative insights we already have as to how people are using our website or product? What’s working on our website already?

Once you know what you know, you know what you don’t know. So it’s worth spending time collating what you already have – it will help you work out where the gaps are.

What else do you need to know about your users?

I’ve already flagged User Persona’s as the traditional approach used to define and understand your ideal customers, and persona’s definitely have their place, but they tend to focus on who your customers/users are, not what they want to do.

When creating digital platforms and products, what we also need to discover, is what our users want to do.

When thinking about User Research, here are some questions you’ll want to explore:

1. Where do you fit in the user journey?

For example, if you’re redesigning your organisation’s website, ask yourself:

  1. Where does your website fit into the bigger picture from your users perspective?
  2. What does your user do before (or after) they visit your site and how might that affect what they do (or don’t do) next.
  3. What other points of contact does the user have with your organisation and do these change depending where they are in their journey?

2. What questions do they have?

Whether it’s a basic understanding of what you offer or something more complex, working out what questions your users have is essential if you’re to create an online experience that will help them (and in turn, help you).

3. What are their worries or concerns?

Humans are complex, sometimes we’re looking for excuses, that enable us to say no, and other times we’re looking for justification, that enables us to say yes, whichever it is, understanding our users concerns will mean we can confidently provide timely content to manage objections and help them make informed decisions.

4. What did they want to do on your website?

What did they come to do? Get directions, find a phone number, buy something, get support, do general research or just browse for inspiration? The more we understand about the actual tasks our users want to complete, the easier we can make it for them to do so.

5. What or who is influencing them?

Are they reading reviews about your organisation? Is the competition tempting them with something better? Are they rushed – is this an urgent problem? Even a basic understanding of external factors that could be swaying your users will help you to empathise and respond to their needs.

6. What are their goals and pain-points?

Taking tasks and concerns a step further, we can start to look at the end goal of our users. What’s ultimate thing they need to achieve and what might make that difficult for them?

Short on time and resources?

Here’s A Sample UX Workshop Plan for a Website Redesign
Need someone to facilitate this?

Filling in the gaps – User research tools

So how do you get the answers to these questions? You could get everyone in a room for a organisational-level brainstorming session – that would be useful, but potentially biased. Alternatively, here’s a list of tasks and tools – they will help you obtain a balanced overview of the people you’re trying to please.

1. Interviews

User interviews can be a quick and relatively easy starting point. By interviewing both users and stakeholders at the start of a website redesign or product design, you can find out how they perceive your website and/or interface, and encourage them to share their thoughts on what would make it better for them.

Interviews are useful if you’re creating User Persona’s or Empathy Maps, but also later in your project when you need to test a physical prototype.

2. Surveys

Sometimes you just need to ask. Here are a couple of surveys you can use to get started with user research:

Exit-intent Surveys

What’s stopping users taking action on your site? A simple exit-intent survey will allow you to quiz your website visitors before they leave your site. Exit-intent surveys are a cost effective way to get user feedback without interrupting them as they peruse your site. A quick ‘why didn’t you get in touch with us today?’ with multiple choice answers, will encourage users to share their thoughts without interrupting / annoying them.

Top tasks analysis

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed at the sheer amount of information available online, you’re not alone. There’s so much online content it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole and completely forget what you came for. This is why it’s super important that we keep focus on the main thing, to really understand and respond to what matters most to your customers.

You can discover this by conducting a Top Tasks Analysis. A Top Task Analysis enables you to define and prioritise what the majority of your users want to do on your website.

By understanding and focusing on these tasks, we can reduce cognitive load and improve our customer’s experience.

For a detailed guide on how to identify top tasks, check out this article on A List Apart.

Following this guide, you’ll be able to ensure what matters most is easily found.

3. Workshops

Getting people together in a room, (whether in person or virtually) is always going to deliver valuable insights. Not an exhaustive list by any means, but here are some workshops ideas that are great for user research.

Customer Journey Mapping Workshop

Customer Journey Maps help you to visualise what your users/customer experience. Customer Journey Mapping can also be used to help us consider and define how we might improve that experience.

Participating in a Journey Mapping workshop will help you to understand and visualise how your customers interact with your organisation. A clearer understanding of your customers expectations will enable you to optimise their experience at each stage of their journey.

Wireframe Workshop

Ironically, wireframe workshops are a great way to avoid design by committee. Getting stakeholders and/or users involved in the wireframe process will most definitely support a successful project outcome.

Stakeholders will feel valued/involved and thus more invested in the design. Users will share their ideas and provide insights as to their needs, needs which you might not have considered.

More on this soon, but meanwhile here’s a great article full of ideas for Wireframe Workshops.

User Experience Workshop concept - post it notes and wireframe ideas on a board

Card-sorting Workshop

Establishing an information hierarchy that matches the mental model of your users will ensure you don’t accidentally present your content from an internal perspective.

An ‘open’ card sorting workshop can also help you to cross over departmental silos and avoid industry-specific jargon. Speaking the language of your customers is essential if you want to improve their experience and help them do what they want/need to do.

You might also take the opportunity to conduct a content audit of your site before you begin.

4. Usability Testing

It’s easy to think User Testing is a ‘later’ thing – something to do once we have our prototype or even our completed product, but what about testing what you already have?

Unless you’re a start-up, chances are you already have a website or interface that you’re trying to improve on, so why not test that to make sure you don’t throw out the good whilst trying to improve the bad.

Usability testing provides insights on both the interface and the user. By taking the focus off the user and onto the interface, it can be less intimidating than direct user interviews. What’s more, you can conduct user testing yourself, for free!

There’s no right or wrong way to conduct user research, but the benefits are many.

It will always depend on the project and constraints like time and budget, but doing something is always better than doing nothing – assuming that what you discover is actually implemented and not forgotten once your project gets underway.

This isn’t an exhaustive list and more often than not, once a project kicks off, we’ll discover something that will change our approach. As an aside, this is exactly why I don’t get involved with ‘invitations to tender’. The very nature of the user experience is one of continuous discovery, so we need to be flexible in order ensure we’re always asking the right questions and defining the right problems.

Hopefully this was useful and you have found some new ways to empathise with and understand your customers.

If you’re in the process of trying to get to know your users better and need a hand, let’s talk.


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