Web Design Process Pt2 – User Research

Mastering Web Design Process – Your Ultimate Guide to Designing Websites Pt2

Have you ever wanted to know how to do a user research? This the subject of this part of Web Design Process – Your Ultimate Guide to Designing Websites. Today, you will learn all there is to know to conduct bulletproof user research. You will learn about various tools and methods you can use to get the information you need. You will also learn about human behavior models that will help you design persuasive websites. Are you ready to master user research?
All parts of the Web Design Process series:

Web Design Process Pt1-Discovery

Web Design Process Pt2-User Research

Web Design Process Pt3-Web Design

Web Design Process Pt4-Evaluation

Phase No.2: User Research

In this second part of this series, we will discuss the second phase of the process that is called “user research”. This phase includes topics such as how to do user research in the right way, what methods of can you use, how to conduct research online and in the field, what models of people’s behavior exist, how to document user research, what is a knowledge gap and much much more. So, after you completed the first phase of the web design process called “discovery”, what are the next steps you should make?

It all Starts With a Goal

What is a user research and why should you care about it? User research is a tool that allows us to understand how people think and make decisions. In a web design discipline, these people will probably be potential visitors of the website. User research offers us various methods to obtain these insights. And, its goal is minimize the risk of creating dysfunctional website. By dysfunctional, I’m referring to a website that doesn’t meet and fulfil the needs of visitors. Another benefit of doing user research is better ability to set clear priorities for the project from the perspective of visitors of the website.

It happens quite often that many web design project are built only on information provided by the client. Or, even worse, on the fantasies of the web designer. The only way to avoid this trap is to always insist on doing user research, no matter how strong the resistance on the side of your client is. Always make it clear the user research is necessary for your web design process. Without it, you will not be able to deliver results in expected quality, or at all. Maybe, this will help stop that nonsense you can see on many job boards some people masquerade as a web design process.

Please, keep in mind that doing proper user research is not something you can do in an hour over cup of coffee or tea. I hope that, by now, you also understand that it is nothing to be skipped to “save” some time and money. Although you are getting certain cards you can’t change when you took any new project, you are still the one who setts the rules. Please, remember that and never let anyone convince of the contrary. Also, don’t confuse user research in web design with user research in marketing.

As a web designer, you don’t care about the numbers. Instead, you are deeply interested in people’s core motivations and expectations. You are interested in understanding why people want to use the website and when they want to use it. You are also interested in how people decide to use this or that specific product instead of another one. The last thing I want to point out is that there is a big difference between knowing the user and thinking that you know the user, or having some imaginary user. Again, please don’t confuse these terms.

The basic structure of user research looks something like this. First, you write down all the things you don’t know about the visitors of the website and its users that you need to know. Second, you choose the most appropriate methods for user research, according to the project. Third, you do the research. Forth, you create a documentation containing the results of your research and then consult your findings with your client. Sound simple, right? Don’t worry, we will discuss all these steps in this article on the lines below.

The Trap of the Knowledge Gap

In the first part of the web design process you’ve obtained an indicative information about people your client is interested in. In other words, information about potential visitors, users and customers of your client. In order to persuade the visitor to make some kind of desired action you need to understand his inner motivations. The next step you need to do is to create appropriate conditions that will “speak” to these motivations and help the visitor to complete desired action. To achieve this goal you need to know certain information.

Firstly, you need to know how the product fits into the life of the user. Secondly, you need to know how the user understands the product. Thirdly, you need to know what is important for the user and what is not. Fourthly, who is making the buying decision? Fifthly, will the product use the buyer or someone else? In other words, will the product need to fulfill needs of more types of users? Sixthly, how the buying process looks like, what approval mechanisms are used? Seventhly, in what situation is the person buying the product? And more depending on the project.

Two Categories of User Research Methods

When it comes to methods of user research used in our web design process, we can divide them into two basic categories. The first category includes methods used to gather information and data. The second category consist of methods used to document your findings. For example, doing a focus groups or use interviews falls into the first group. On the other hand, when you use the data obtained during the interview to create a persona, this will belong into the group number two.

One thing that has to be said about the work with documentation is that it is never linear. Your documentation will influence the form of your user research and the methods you will use to gather the data. For this reason, it is always beneficial to have at least some idea about how will you document the findings. You should have some picture about in the ways you will use your documentation during the web design process.

Another important thing we should make clear is that the purpose or goal of user research is not just to “check” one item on your to-do list. User research is a tool that will help you during the web design phase of the web design process. We will discuss this phase in the next part. For now, just keep in mind this fact and use it to choose the methods that will suit your project the best. For example, will personas help you in this project? If so, you should use them. And, you should also adjust your research to gather the maximum amount of information relevant to personas. Otherwise, don’t waste your time with them and use different method.

Online Research

One of the available methods is online research. Contrary to some beliefs, online research doesn’t necessarily have to be cheaper than research conducted among people in person. The upside of doing an online research is that you will also get some numbers you might not get otherwise. That being said, I would suggest that you conduct an online research only as a supplemental activity. Still, it will be better than having nothing at hand at all.

Analysis of the Current Websites

Unlike online research, this is something I would suggest you to include in your web design process. When you are hired to do a redesign of existing website, you will naturally get into a great place. Why? You will be in a place where you can obtain a lot of information without having to go out and talk to people. It is probable that there will be some kind of analytic software installed in the website. It is almost a safe bet that the website will use at least Google Analytics. This and similar tools will give you great insights into the current behavior of the visitors and users.

There are some prerequisites to use the data provided by these tools successfully. Firstly, the website has to be well designed on the technical side. This means that navigation is not complex, the website is intelligently structured and organized and it is not running on one URL. Secondly, the analytic tool has to be configured properly so you can get the data you need. There is nothing better than website with analytics, but without any goals, funnels, user filtering, etc. In these cases, analytics function more as a decoration.

The third and, I guess, the most important prerequisite is that you are able to interpret the data from analytics appropriately and make conclusion based on them. So, if you are not very good with analytics and analyzing the data, you had better find some who is. Otherwise, you may make a conclusion that will do nothing in the best scenario. In the worst, it can cause some troubles. Don’t worry, we will take a closer look at this subject in the part 4 called “evaluation”. For now, I will give you couple clues to what you should look for.

How conversion funnels look like? How is the web doing in the terms of conversions and micro conversions? What is current bounce rate? Are there any pages visitors are leaving immediately? If so, is this in line with the objectives? What is the current distribution of visitors in terms of devices? Should we start with mobile-first design or desktop-first? Sure, it is advised today to always start with mobile web and I follow the same approach. However, if the majority of users is using larger devices such as desktops and notebooks, you may be better off start with desktop.

What is the current trend of the display resolution visitors are using? How often are people using search on the website (if there is any)? What keywords are they using? What consequences will these search queries have for the new architecture and design of the website. What content will bring you more visitors and customers? What traffic sources are the most interesting in terms of conversions? What content is shared the most on social media? How often people return to the website? How many visits are necessary to make conversion? How different is behavior of new visitor compared to returning?

Online Questionnaires

The data from analytic tools will tell you WHAT are people doing on the website. Unfortunately, they will not tell you WHY are they doing it. In many cases, clients and also web designers are only guessing what are the reasons behind certain behavior. For this reason, it is a good idea to support the data from analytic tools with some kind of an online questionnaire. This will give you deeper insights into people’s motivations and increase the chances of your web design process to successful and create great web design.

There are two big downsides to online questionnaires. First, you don’t have statistically suitable sample of visitors. Second, the percentage of completed questionnaires will depend on the brand awareness the visitor has. Also, the phase of the buying cycle he or she is in will have an impact on this number. Regardless to these two downsides, online questionnaires can still provide you with interesting insights and ideas for next phases of your web design process. Questionnaires can also help you uncover some of the motivations visitors of the website have.

Questionnaires and Surveys

Surveys are another sociological method similar to online questionnaires. Surveys can help you test your hypothesis on a larger sample of people than just the visitors of the website. In order to get usable information from the survey, you need to focus on a specific group of people. Unfortunately, this group of people will probably not include members of your family, friends or followers on social media. The same applies to your client. So, don’t waste time with these people.

Does this mean that you should abandon the idea of using social networks? Not at all. You can use advertising on Facebook or on twitter to aim your survey on the group of people you are interested in. There are many rules and best practices that need to be followed in order to prepare survey that will provide you with usable data. I highly recommend that you either start to study sociology or find some expert in this field and ask him to create the survey for you. Otherwise, the survey may not work as well as it could.

Analyse Competitors’ Website

The benefit of having a competition is that it can give you ideas you can use in the project for your client. For this reason, never underestimate your client’s competition and project similar to yours. However, you should also avoid going too far and using these examples as a cornerstone for your work. Remember, your client doesn’t need to catch up his competition. He needs to get ahead of them and differentiate his business.

Next, don’t spend too much of your time analyzing competitor’s websites. All you need is a general idea you can build upon. Then, you will be much better off investing the rest of the time into understanding your client’s customers and designing the website. What is the ideal time or moment for taking a closer look at the website of client’s competitors? It is when you have a general idea about the people who will use your client’s website. At this time, looking on other websites will help you empathize better and find elements that might or might not work well.

Where you can look for “inspiration”? First, ask your client for a list of websites that he perceives as his competition. Second, use Google or any other search engine and search for websites from your client’s industry. Visit quality web galleries such as Behance and Dribbble and again look for websites from the industry of your client. Ideally, look for the best examples. You don’t need a pile of low-quality trash. Fortunately, it is less likely the galleries I mentioned will feature examples of poor quality. For this reason, visit these websites before trying search engines.

One of the benefits of knowing the competitors of your client is that it can help you find solutions on many problems you will encounter in various phases of the web design process. In that case, it is better to use what’s already working instead of reinventing the wheel. It will also save you some time you can spend on other important things and problems nobody was able to solve yet. By looking at other websites, you can also find mistakes you will want to avoid in your project. You can either analyse the websites on your own or conduct small user testing event.

Analyse Adjacent Edges

When people will visit the website of your client, they will probably come from another website. Also, when they leave the website, they will probably not close the browser, but visit another website. Why you should care about this even if it is not directly related to the project? The idea here is that you should identify couple of these websites and take a look at the design patterns they use. Then, you can use these patterns in your own web design to make the website look familiar for visitors and, therefore, easier to use.

Analyse Keywords

Another way to understand how people, visiting the website of your client, think is analyzing keywords. This can also have an impact on how the website will be structured, primary languages and information architecture. Again, unless you have some experiences with keyword search and analysis, I recommend that you find someone who has.

Research Outside the Web

Until know, we covered mostly methods of the web design process you can do from everywhere with any amount of clothes. Now, it is time to get out of the building. User research, user testing, user experience and user “enjoyment”. All these terms contain the word “user”. And, unless you are purely by chance an avid fan or superuser of your client’s website or product, you need to find the people who are. Even if you satisfy the condition you still need to talk with other people to get more than one opinion and perspective. Remember, you don’t know what you don’t know.

User Research the Guerilla Way

One of the more affordable forms of research for low-budget projects (try to avoid such a projects) is guerilla user research. This type of research is built on the idea of identifying the target user group and post small ad on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. From my own experience, Facebook works better thanks to already existing groups build around specific topics. You can also go through the contacts you address book and invite couple of your friends on coffee or tea and have a small talk with.

If neither of these options will work, you can also take to the streets and talk with people you will meet. If you don’t like streets, you can also try your luck in the subway, bus or coffee houses. The goal is to talk with people and gather information for the project. Following this approach will require you to have a thick skin. However, it can give you precious information you might miss.

In-Depth Interviews

In-depth interviews are one of the research methods many professionals use in their web design process. This method is great to learn more about the people you chose for as the target group of users. Couple web designers I talked with favored in-depth interviews before any other method. If done right, in-depth interviews can give you much more information and insights than anything else. What can discourage some web designers from giving in-depth interviews a try is that this method requires a dose of empathy, experience and a lot of practice. And, even if you have all of this, you may still feel a little bit uncomfortable.

It is also important to mention that it can look like the information you are getting are not worth it. That’s normal. People need some time to get comfortable talking with you. They will often feel stressed when you start to interview them about their work, hobbies and themselves. Some people will also not be able to release the tension if you are recording the interview. So, it can be a good idea to discuss these things ahead and adjust the setting before the interview happen.

Another important thing is that some people may consciously or unconsciously embellish the answers. One way to avoid this, or at least minimize it, is to ask on the same thing in different ways couple times during the interview.

Thanks to the stories you will hear in these in-depth interviews, it will be easier for you to imagine the people who will be using the website. Then, you can use this understanding in your web design process to create a better and more usable web design. Unfortunately, there’s a catch. Well, two. The first one is the project budget. The second is the ability of your client to find the right people that will also be willing to talk with you. It is much better to talk with people that aren’t perfect fit than to talk with no one. Still, those people should be from the target audience of the website.

Keep in mind that you are not trying to test some general rules or design patterns. You are trying to understand the life and motivations of specific group of people. In other words, in-depth interviews with completely random people will be waste of your time. What if the people your client found are far away from the target audience of the website? I suggest that you take the initiative and do the work on your own. You can use social media to find the people meeting your requirements. You can also agree with your client on giving small rewards to these people.

For example, these rewards can be coupons people can later use to get a discount on specific products your client is selling. Or, you can invite these people on tea or coffee and pay for them. Whatever you choose, the goal is to create win-win situation for both sides.

There are generally two mistakes beginner can make. The first mistake is that you will ask on hypothetical situations. People will answer these questions with information based partially or completely on their fantasies. This type of information is not helpful. Instead, you have to ask on what are people really doing, not something they “may” be doing. The second mistake is thinking that someone has to be still talking. Many people starting not familiar with in-depth interviews, or web design process, think that being quiet is a bad thing. The opposite is true.

Every time you are silent, the other side has a chance to be more talkative. The next time, give it a try, stay silent and just listen. Attentive listening is the key to get to the information you are looking for. Let me also mention that these in-depth interviews are a great way to get ideas for solving problems, creating information architecture, understand the language of the user, his or her real problems and most primarily the feeling of interaction. No other method can offer this.

In-depth interviews can be done in different ways. You can do them in person, you can use your phone or you can use Skype or Hangouts. I think that in-depth interviews done in person are the best option. If you are not restricted geographically, you should prefer those.

Focus Groups

If you are not completely new, you probably heard about focus groups. This is also the reason I’m mentioning them. Focus group is basically about having a discussion with group of people from your target audience on specific subject (product, service, etc.). Every focus group needs couple things. First, you have to define the purpose of the focus group. Remember that the more specific the definition will be, the easier the process will get. Second, you need to establish a timeline. The fact is that focus group can’t be created overnight. According to experts, the average time for planning focus group is about 7 weeks.

This may look like too much time. Trust me, it’s not. You need time to identify the people who will participate in the focus group, create and test the questions, choose location, invite participants and also gather the materials required for the event. Third, you need to identify the participants. How many people do you need? What attributes and characteristics these people must have? Then, you have to get their contact information and invite them. Fourth, you have to prepare a list of open-ended questions, from general to specific.

You can also include one or two question to “warm up” people. Since you have only so much time, keep the number of questions low. Five to seven questions are often enough. Use only questions that are important and directly related to the subject. Sort the questions from general to more specific to make the process more comfortable for participants. Fifth, create a script for your focus group. This script should begin with opening. In this phase, facilitator will introduce the purpose, context of the group and explain the process. Next phase is questioning. This is where you ask prepared questions. The last part of the script is closing. This is time to thank the participants and tell them how the information will be used.

Sixth, select a facilitator. Facilitator is a person who should be able to deal with outspoken people in the group. This person is also responsible for keeping the discussion on track and making sure every participant is heard. It is also important that the facilitator have sufficient knowledge about the project. Seventh, choose location when the event will happen. Remember that the location you choose has to be easily accessible and have comfortable environment and setting that will encourage conversation.

I have to note that I don’t use focus groups in my web design process, or only marginally. There are two reasons. First, you need to have facilitator that has sufficient experience. Unless you are working with someone, your client might not have anyone meeting this requirement. Second, focus groups are expensive. You have to compensate the time of participant in the group. You may also need to secure the place for focus group. This can significantly increase the budget.

Card Sorting

Another method to use in user research phase of web design process is card sorting. The goal of this method is to understand how people think about concepts, ideas and categories. You write specific concept or idea on the card and let people work with it. There are several approaches to this method. First, you give people cards and let them divide them into groups they will create and name. This is open card sorting. Second, you are the one who is creating the groups and naming them. People will only divide the cards. This is closed card sorting.

The third and last approach is to show or tell people the name of the group and let them tell you what would they expect in that group. Whatever approach will you choose, you will get interesting insights that will help you create information architecture of the website.

Shadowing

Shadowing is one of the more time-consuming methods of user research. This method is about being literally a shadow of specific person. For example, you can follow the person through his work hours and watch everything he does. Well, toilets are acceptable exception. You can talk with the person from time to time, but you can’t distract him from work or try to change his behavior. Next, you can follow this method with in-depth interview because you will have a better idea about what questions should you ask. In web design, this method is used very rarely.

How to Document User Research

When you finish the research, it is time to go through your notes and recordings and create documentation. This documentation has sense if you will use it during designing phase, presentation to your client and just during the whole web design process. Documentation will provide more stable ground for your words and suggestions you will present to your client. Without research and documented results, it is your client who has the last word because he is the one paying the project.

With information provided by user research, your client will have to think more about his arguments. Now, it is not about your word against his. It is about your facts (maybe a little bit blurred if you screwed the research). In most cases, make your documentation rather shorter and brief than longer. As you will see, many clients will not read it from the first page to the last. Some clients will not read it at all. So, don’t waste your time on creating a hundred-page essay. The last thing is to make sure your documentation allows people reading it to take some action steps.

Personas

We discussed personas couple times in this and also the first part of the web design process series. Personas are basically archetypal users of the website. The simplest way to imagine persona is to think about piece of paper with photo, couple demographic information and story about the person. Stories are always better than number of points because they will help you visualize the person in more vivid details. Persona can either map behavior, motivations and needs of the people that will visit your website or people who will not (negative persona).

In a web design, especially in agencies, you might encounter something called proto-personas. These personas are mostly a mix of your fantasy and some random data you have about users. Although the results you will get will never be as precise as with normal personas, proto-personas are still better nothing. If you are working with proto-personas, take the results with discretion. Also, if you will feel your assumptions are wrong, don’t be afraid to make adjustments.

Let me give you couple tips for creating good personas. First, use stories that will connect the persona with the website of product. Second, highlight the characteristics that distinguish individual personas. Third, focus on situations, ideas and needs related to the web, not on demographic data. Fourth, make sure your personas will allow you to make some action. Persona focused on fitness enthusiast will be useless for website about travelling. Fifth, create more personas and prioritize them. It is always better to consider more options and possibilities.

Storyboards

Storyboard is a short story created from sequence of images with short info. It is basically a comic strip. In web design process, we use storyboards mainly when we need some tool for conceptual thinking. Meaning, we need to consider broader range of solutions and contexts of people visiting the website in different situations or on different devices. Storyboards are also very good for getting insights into what your client thinks about potential solution. Finally, storyboards will help you test if you really understand the problem and your solution (the outcome of your web design process) is meeting clients expectations. In a short, storyboards are a great tool for finding a common ground.

Every storyboard must include couple things. First, there must be main character that is in the centre of the story. Second, you need a scenario that will outline how the main character thinks about the problem he needs to solve. Third, you need to set an environment the character lives in. This can be his or her home, office, shop, etc. Fourth, you need a plot. It starts with some event and aims to successful or unsuccessful solution of the situation.

Draw how the plot will look like and how will the main character react. Can he or she solve the problem and achieve his or her goal? What role will your website or product play? How will it help him or her? What is necessary for the character to succeed?

Bonus – Models of Human Behavior

General theory of human behavior is good extension for user research and web design process. This theory can help you understand the future users of the website in a way user research can’t. There are many examples of bbehaviormodels. Some are simple and some are more complex. One example useful for web design is from book Submit Now: Designing Persuasive Web Sites by Andrew Chak. This model includes four types of users. These are browsers, evaluators, transactors and customers.

The first type, browser, often doesn’t know that he might want your product or service. He could get on your website accidentally. Your job is to catch his interest and persuade him to think about your product and remember it. Evaluator is a person looking for something to solve his need. Your job is to help him choose the best. In case of evaluators, you should limit number of alternatives. Otherwise, too many options can paralyse him. You also have to persuade him that the solution you are offering is the best and that it will really solve his needs.

The third type is transactor. This person decided to buy and to buy from you. Your job is to make the process as easy and simple as possible. Remove all obstacles on the way and show him the shortest way to checkout. The fourth and last type is customer. Customer is a person who made a transaction with your client in the past. Your job is to take care about his happiness, motivate him to visit the website again and also encourage him to share his experience with his friends. Your finite goal is to convert him into brand ambassador.

Closing Thoughts on Having a Web Design Process Pt2

This is where we will close this second part of the Web Design Process – Your Ultimate Guide to Designing Websites series. Final words? User research is inseparable part of web design process and it is your responsibility to use it. Luckily, user research can be done even if you don’t have abundance of resources, access to people and team of experts behind you. The core of user research is gathering information you will use to in designing phase.

I suggest that you focus on “offline” type of user research and use the “online” version only as an alternative. You will get more and better information from meeting people on the street. And, if there is just one method you should focus on in this phase of web design process, it is in-depth interview with both, potential users of the website and also people on the side of your client. This method is the key for user research. So, if you will have to use just one method, use this one.

The third phase of the web design process we will discuss in the next part will be about designing the website, so stay in touch. Until then, work on the first two phases of your web design process.

Do you have any questions, recommendations, thoughts, advice or tip you would like to share with other readers of this blog, and me? Please share it in a comment. You can also send me a mail. I would love to hear from you.

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Alex Devero

I'm Founder/CEO of DEVERO Corporation. Entrepreneur, designer, developer. My mission and MTP is to accelerate the development of humankind through technology.

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