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Conducting website user research in 5 steps

There is nothing more central to web design than a deep understanding of audience and purpose. So it makes sense that conducting your own user research is of critical importance in the process.

User research enables us to put ourselves in the position of our website visitors, and in turn respond to their needs and requirements, providing them with a website that is tailored, functional and exactly what they need.

When planned and carried out thoughtfully, user research can help us to avoid putting our own biases and slant on a project and really hone our design work to maximise its reach and effectiveness.

So how to go about the process logically and systematically? In this blog post, we break user research down into five easy steps. Here they are.

1: Aims – What are you trying to find out?

There are several key questions you’ll need to focus on at the start of your user research in order to get a really good hold on audience and purpose. Your aims might include finding out:

  • Who are your audience? You’ll need to consider demographics (age, income, education, gender, occupation etc.), psychographics (lifestyle, personality, attitudes, values, behaviours) and geographics (location and type of setting, e.g. urban, suburban, rural)
  • Why are they visiting the site? Here, you’ll be thinking about what drives your audience to visit your website and identify their primary and secondary purposes
  • What do they want? It might be a cliché, but you need to think about WIIFT (What’s In It For Them) – what do your visitors hope to get out of a visit from your site? Are they there to buy something, to learn something, to socialise, to be entertained? What do they expect by the end of their visit?
  • When do people visit the site? Sometimes people’s routines can be important, particularly if you’re timing special offers or introducing new products, so make sure you consider any potential patterns that could be useful
  • How are your audience using the site currently? Are they predominantly using mobile or desktop devices? How long do they stay on the site for? You will want to find out how they interact with the site itself, in terms of where they focus, what they click on and what ‘mistakes’ they make

2: Assumptions – What do you think you already know?

Because you already know your website and business inside out, it’s easy to inadvertently put your own biases and assumptions to work when designing or redesigning. So take time to compare what you think you know about your users against what the hard data. Sometimes you might be surprised and an audience demographic might have shifted or an area you hadn’t considered might have appeared. Don’t be afraid to challenge your own assumptions.

3: Methods – How are you going to do it?

How you carry out your research depends, of course, upon the objectives you have set in Step One. But typically, you’ll use a mixture of methods, including:

  • Surveys and interviews
  • Market analysis
  • Analysis of trends and patterns
  • Card sorting, organising data
  • Paper prototyping, sketching
  • Usability testing

You’ll need to make sure that your processes are rigorous and free from bias if you are to make full use of your findings. So choose your research methods carefully, considering the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.

4: Research – Let’s go!

Carrying out the research will likely involve several people or even teams of people if your company is large and your website extensive. So it’s important to make sure throughout the research that everyone is focused on the same goals and using the same methodology.

Keep channels of communication open and make sure that your methods of recording are consistent. The whole process may take several weeks, but don’t feel pressured into rushing through the actual research – you don’t want to make mistakes or overlook key issues.

5: Evaluate – What have you learnt?

Now that you’ve collected your data, you need to collate and synthesis what you’ve learnt. This involves taking an objective look at the facts, reading between the lines where necessary and comparing your findings against your original assumptions and your key objectives.

Have you met your intended aims? Were there any surprises? If so, why? Drawing conclusions as a team will help you to gain a deep understanding of your users and be able to develop ideas and solutions that are truly fit for purpose.

Once you’ve completed the five steps of user research, you’re ready to apply your new-found knowledge to the design process, and will be well-placed to come up with a design that is more tailored, more relevant and more effective than ever.