Cutting Out User Research Costs You Money

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 whitepapers 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 whitepapers, 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.

Finally, be open-minded.

I’m curious… If your company has never conducted user research before, why not? Is it a budget issue, or are there other reasons why? Tweet me @KristineRemer.

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6 Ways I Would Improve the Usability of Etsy

UPDATE: I launched a shop on Etsy about 2 weeks after this post was published. A lot has changed on Etsy since this post was first written in 2012.

I first discovered Etsy in 2006 and was immediately addicted despite my poor success rate of finding anything I actually wanted to buy.

Here was my typical experience: search, surf awhile, refine my search, surf for awhile, refine my search again, surf for a few more minutes, and then finally hopelessly give up at 1 o’ clock in the morning.

Fast forward 6 years later and my behavior is pretty much the same, except now I religiously use the “favorite” feature (or pin to Pinterest) because now I know I will never find that same item ever again.

Etsy homepage

If you’re not familiar with Etsy, it is a collection of independent shops who sell (mostly) handmade items such as purses, jewelry, clothing, toys, accessories, furniture, food, and art. Buyers purchase items directly from sellers, and then Etsy collects a small listing fee and commission on each item sold. It has easily turned millions of stay-at-home moms and starving artists into small business owners. (Yay!)

Etsy handmade itemsAs much as I love the concept of Etsy and adore the many items I have purchased over the years, I do not love the user experience. In a word, it is horrible. At present, there are 9.3 million items on Etsy. Yes, that’s right. Nine Million Products. With that many products on a website, search and navigation must be absolutely impeccable.

But it is not.

If I were director of user experience at Etsy, here are 6 ways I would improve the usability of the site.

1. Establish photography standards.

Without a doubt, the poorly lit and fuzzy photography that runs rampant on Etsy negatively impacts the entire user experience. Plus, it puts shops with great photography at an unfair disadvantage. The more bad photographs users must wade through, the less likely they will reach the shop with the great photography and fabulous products. In my experience, shops with great photography tend to have many more sales. (Funny how the 2 are correlated.)

Etsy tags

2. Add filtering.

If you have 8 hours to kill, use the left navigation to shop on Etsy.  Using the site this way means viewing hundreds of thousands of items in each category and tens of thousands of items in each subcategory. The only way to find anything on Etsy is by searching. When you enter a keyword in Etsy, the search engine uses product names and product tags to display items by relevancy.

Shop owners can add up to 13 tags plus up to 13 material tags (e.g., wood, felt). Tags are a fantastic way to add meta data to a website – if done correctly. Unfortunately, Etsy does not standardize tags, rendering them pretty much useless. Let’s pretend a user searches for “aqua diaper backpack,” but unfortunately, the seller tagged the item as “turquoise” and “diaper bag.” Consequently, buyer and seller will never find each other.


Etsy pagination

3. Eliminate pagination.

Pagination is dead. Or at least I think it should be. Pagination was chiefly invented by publishers as a way to increase page views so that they could make more money on advertising.  Large sites such as Twitter, Google, Linkedin and Facebook are already moving away from pagination.

What do I mean by “pagination?” Instead of viewing 10 items per page, then clicking “next page” to view the next set of 10, users click “show more” and now view all 20 items on the same Web page – making it easier to compare and return to previous items.

Pagination is especially devastating for Etsy. When the number of search results is almost always in the thousands or tens of thousands, viewing 40 items at a time is, well, time-consuming and exasperating.

4. Build a (better) recommendation engine.

If Etsy has a recommendation engine, it’s not at all obvious to me. I have “favorited” hundreds of items and dozens of shops and purchased many items in these past 6 years, and yet Etsy has never shown me relevant products on the home page. Instead I’m shown a group of items curated by an Etsy member, of which rarely match my tastes. Or they show me “items matching my taste” — based on a quiz I took on Etsy — which rarely match my tastes. You see the humor in this, right?

5. Eliminate duplicate categories.

There are multiple ways to browse for toys on Etsy. You can select “Toy” in the left navigation. Or, you can select “Children,” and then “Toys” from the subcategory list. But there are consequences if you choose the wrong path.  You will see two entirely different sets of toys.

Note: The categories are actually helpful when searching on Etsy. You can use them to help filter your search results.

Etsy filtering

6. Display personalized search results.

If Etsy wants to dramatically grow revenue, it is imperative that they build an intelligent search engine. That is, display results based on a combination of factors: past browsing and purchase behavior, popularity (e.g., purchases, views), relevancy of keywords, social media influence (e.g., number of backlinks), and predictive selling.

A smart search engine would eliminate the loophole that allows some shop owners to “game” the system by constantly relisting their items and adding non-relevant tags to their items in order to appear on the first page of search results.

In addition, search results should include “layered” or multiple sets of search listings, then allow users to choose the set that works best for them. Examples of search sets:

  • Regular search listings
  • Most popular items
  • Recently viewed items
  • Editor’s Picks
  • Sponsored items

After poking around on Google for a few minutes, I discovered that Etsy routinely conducts usability studies – which is great news! It is clear that Etsy works hard to support its shop owners in other ways also – with community discussion forums, shop makeover labs, featuring sellers, partnering with West Elm, craft nights, and, of course, an extensive how-to guide for new sellers. It is rare to find a brand that gives so much back to its community. You can’t help but root for such a special company.

Now, your turn. If you were director of user experience at Etsy, what would you change? Tweet me @KristineRemer.