User research (that is, talking one-on-one with your target audience) ensures that your website requirements are aligned with your customers’ needs. In the long-run, user research saves time, reduces revisions and second-guessing, uncovers lost revenue opportunities and identifies wasted resources.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing things because your competitors do them. Further, you run the risk of squandering money on web features your customers don’t want or need.
By conducting user research, you will find out if it’s worth the sweat and tears of publishing a blog, or if Twitter would be a better investment of your time. You’ll find out if your customers ever attend webinars or read papers and why. Or what keeps prospects from purchasing or signing up.
Declining to conduct user research (and ideally, a competitive analysis, too) breaks the system of checks and balances. Without conflict or corroboration between information sources — there is no confidence, no prioritization, no red flags, no focus.
How to: Create a Cookie-Cutter Web Strategy
I was once in a very uncomfortable situation where a client told me that my ideas were boring. I admit, she was right. After looking at their website and reviewing my client interview notes, I wrote down some ways the client could improve their site. They were common best practices found on many B2B websites: add a blog and papers, include customer testimonials, organize the portfolio by industry and so forth. I offered few unique approaches or fresh ideas.
Did I have confidence this was even the right strategy? Not really. But with the limited knowledge I had about this company, it was the best I had to offer. But I also knew it was not the caliber of work I was used to delivering to clients.
So what was different about this project?
Before the project was assigned to me, the client cut user research and the competitive analysis from the budget — tasks I had always conducted for other clients. Now, the discovery phase included just one meeting with the client team. After the meeting, I understood more about the company — but still only at a 10,000-foot level. So guess what happened? Because I never got to ground-level, I delivered a 10,000-foot web strategy. Mediocre input yielded mediocre output.
It’s very difficult to spot “aha” moments at the 10,000-foot level. Sometimes you can easily spot them. And sometimes the light bulb doesn’t turn on until the second or third time you see them.
Finding “aha” moments during user research can mean:
- finding simple ways to delight your customers
- lowering the abandonment rate
- realigning the messaging to be more relevant
- introducing a value-add service
- clarifying pricing and benefits
- reducing call center volume or talk time
- hundreds, thousands or even millions in incremental revenue
How-to: Create an Insights-Driven Web Strategy
During a typical discovery phase, the web strategist will likely ask about your business, your competitors and your customers – who they are, about their background, what challenges they face, what information they need, why they visit your site and so on. The customer part of the discussion usually lasts 15 minutes to an hour.
All of this information about your customers is invaluable. But it should only be a jumping off point to a larger study about your customers. Nothing can replace talking to your customers one-on-one.
To do our jobs to the best of our ability, web strategists need to hear from your customers first-hand:
- their personal anecdotes
- the words they use to describe your products and services
- their attitudes
- who and what influences their decisions
- their questions and concerns
- why they chose you and not a competitor
- what they worry about
- where they access your site (at a desk or on the road)
- what other sites they visit and why
User research – in the form of surveys, interviews, focus groups, usability studies – sets up your entire project for success. User research doesn’t need to be complex or expensive. In many cases, the findings that are uncovered will pay for themselves within days, weeks or months of launching. If after conducting research, you find that you don’t learn anything new — well, isn’t that good to know also? Validation is actually the best possible outcome: no scope creep (yay!).
Don’t wait until your next redesign to begin conducting user research. Set up an informal focus group at your office or at an upcoming trade show. Send out a short online survey to 10% of your database. Watch a handful of customers use your website. Set up a poll on Facebook or tweet questions to your followers on Twitter. Listen in on customer service or sales calls.