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Building a better website with audience research – Part one

If you really want to build a better website, it is crucial to base the decisions you make on solid audience research. Armed with facts and figures, real-life user opinions and analytical data, you can plan for changes and ensure that your website is current, relevant and useful.

In this series of blog posts, we’ve taken three overarching methods that you can easily and systematically use as a basis for planning your website design or update. The first of these methods is the simplest and most obvious, with perhaps the greatest potential for deep research. Yet it is often the most overlooked. Enter Method 1 – Ask.

You must first ask the question

As the saying goes, you’ll never find out the answer if you don’t first ask the question. Asking is the simplest and most direct way of finding out what your website user really wants and expects from your site. There are two main methods of doing this:

  • Participatory discovery sessions
  • Surveys

Participatory discovery sessions

Discovery sessions provide one of the quickest ways of generating both quantity and quality of relevant responses. These can work either one-on-one with an individual or a small group, and usually follow this sequence:

  1. Ask your audience open-ended questions, e.g. ‘What do you expect to be able to do on this website?’ or ‘What information do you expect to find?’ Asking users to provide approximately ten items for each question is ideal and depending on your research methodology, you might choose your participants to write these down (or paper or post-it notes) or say them aloud and have them collaboratively scribed.

    It’s important to accept all responses, however unexpected, and whether you personally agree or disagree.

  2. Ask your participants to rank each item in order of importance. This might involve writing numbers next to each or moving post-it notes into ascending or descending order.
  3. Encourage discussion about your participants’ responses and rankings, as a group if this is your methodology or by asking for explanation and clarification from individuals.

    You may wish to record this session with audio equipment so that you don’t miss anything which might later be important. If so, make sure you gain your participants’ permission upfront. It’s also vital to remain unbiased and not steer the conversation too much.

    Remember that the more honest and open the discussion can be, the better the level of responses you will collect, and the greater the positive impact on your website. Having a script ready beforehand can help avoid any bias or better still, employ someone else to carry out this part of the project for you.

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When it comes to either discovery sessions or surveys, you can’t find the right answer if you’re asking the wrong question, so planning upfront is absolutely critical to the success of an audience research project. 

But whilst discovery sessions are based on open-ended questions, surveys need to focus on closed, narrow questions, and should be simple and phrased to avoid any ambiguity. 

‘Yes’ or ‘No’ responses, multiple choice answers or using a ranking or scale of some sort work well for this method and give you clear, quantitive data which is easy to analyse objectively once you have collated your data.

Using a program such as Survey Monkey makes easy work of this type of research and is easy and affordable (or even free). The key to getting it right is in targeting the right group of participants and in planning the questions themselves with absolute attention to detail and with an eye always on the overriding purpose of the research. 

Remember too that you will need to send out far more surveys than you expect to be completed. And assuming that your respondents fall into your target category, the greater the number of responses, the better.

By focusing on asking the right questions to the right audience, you can generate a huge amount of relevant and practical data which you can use in your website design or redesign to great and measurable effect. Sometimes the simplest solutions remain the most effective.

Next week’s blog post will focus on a second method of audience research – using analytics data – to learn about the types of change your website needs in order to appeal further to your target audience and to drive new traffic.