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Why You Shouldn’t Skip User Research: A Primer For Your Next Web Project

Shannon Ruetsch,

Head of Experience Design

You are launching a new website, your first big project as the VP of Marketing at a large corporation. Your new website launches—and it’s a flop. Organic traffic starts declining. Existing customers start leaving at a faster rate than you can bring in new ones. The bottom line is affected. The CEO has questions. What happened? How can you fix it? And is there anything you could have done to prevent this? 

Chances are, you skimped on doing user research. And you probably never tested the website with users prior to going live. The good news is, you can drastically reduce the risk of something like this happening to you if you invest in user research. Not investing in any user research is one of the most common mistakes we see companies make. If your budget is tight, do more focused research. Hone in on the key questions. Don’t skip it altogether. We can promise you this—once you start getting real user insights, you’ll never want to skip user research again! This article covers the definitions of user research and usability testing, the difference between them, and why both are important to successful website design projects.

What is user research? 

In the context of website design, user research is the process of learning about the way people who use your website think and behave in the context of the real world and why. This arms you with the information you need to design a website that better serves your users and creates lift in key areas of engagement. As you might expect, user research involves — gasp!—talking to people. There is no substitute. The good news is that this doesn’t have to be difficult. And user research can easily be done remotely, which is more important now than ever considering COVID-19. 

Why is user research important for website design? Why do it?

People make all kinds of excuses for not doing user research. User research is important for website design because websites are used by real people. People are complex. It’s almost arrogant to assume that the way we think is the same way our customers or clients think. Unvalidated assumptions are quite dangerous when they serve as the foundation for a million dollar project. The more we learn and understand about a particular company’s audience, the better we are able to meet the specific needs of those people through design. Designing a website that actually meets verified user needs will make your customers feel seen and understood, like you just “get them”, and a good user experience has been proven to positively impact your bottom line. A study done by Forrester found that for every $1 invested in UX, a business will see a return of between $2 and $100—that’s between a 100% and 9000% return on your investment. Jared Spool proved the value of user research when research led his team to change a button on a form, resulting in a major ecommerce retailer earning $300 million more dollars in revenue the first year after the design change. There are other benefits to designing a good user experience beyond revenue gains, too—like a reduction in support calls, a reduction in wasted development time, and an increase in customer satisfaction.

There is simply no replacement for talking to users directly and watching users use your product first-hand. Talking to users directly helps to create empathy for the real people you’re designing a website for, get a better understanding of their true needs and priorities, and gain valuable insight into the context in which these people are interacting with your website. While not the only type of research we recommend doing, user research is invaluable in helping to inform how we design a website and organize a website.

What is the risk of not doing user research or usability testing?

The risk you take by not doing research is that your project will fail. The bigger and more complex your website is, the riskier it is to skip user research. If you skip user research on a large website design project, you are essentially creating an entire new website based on stakeholder assumptions and maybe some traffic analytics if you already have an existing site. With that approach, you’ll find out if you’ve missed the mark when the new website goes live. It’s a risky approach to take if you are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in designing and building a new website. One Forrester study found that 70% of digital projects fail due to a lack of user acceptance. You can easily avoid adding your project to that list by planning for and prioritizing some level of user research and usability testing as part of the design process.

No client has ever regretted investing in user research—there is always a new insight or a deeper understanding to be gained that benefits the organization even beyond the website project.

Okay, you’re convinced. Now, what exactly do you research? 

You have a budget to think about, so it’s important to know the right stuff to research. Don’t waste your time asking a lot of questions that aren’t relevant to your design project. Clearly defining your research questions is a critical step in the user research process. Erika Hall, a recognized expert in User Experience Design (UX), describes the four areas of context that are important to understand about your users before embarking on a new design project in her book, Just Enough Research:

  • Physical environment
    When you consider the user’s physical environment, you can design to optimize use for certain physical scenarios. For example, if you’re designing a food-related website that includes recipes—are people reading the instructions while cooking? While grocery shopping? Do they print them out? Are they viewing them on an IPad? Are their hands covered in flour after Step 4? You can imagine how the answers to all of these questions start to influence design and functionality decisions.
  • Mental model
    Your mental model is the way you think about how to do things. It’s your understanding of the way things work. It’s hard to change someone’s mental model so it’s important to understand where your users are coming from and how they get things done today, so you can figure out where you fit in. Are your users comfortable with using voice commands? If an ingredient is not available, is a person more likely to substitute it or leave it out completely? How do people search for recipes—title of a dish or by ingredients on hand?
  • Habits
    Habits are notoriously hard to change, but not impossible. What existing habits do users have that you can tap into? Is cooking a daily habit or is this new? Where does cooking currently fit into their weekly routine? What about grocery shopping? How do they plan meals today? How do they usually find recipes online?
  • Relationships
    It’s helpful to remember that people do not exist in isolation. We all navigate complex social relationships in our day-to-day life. How many people is the person cooking for? Is the person who does the cooking the same one who finds the recipe? How about grocery shopping, who’s responsible for that?

What user research methods should you use?

User research can be qualitative or quantitative and we typically recommend using a mix of different methods to gain the most valuable insights. Whether quantitative or qualitative, the goal of doing user research is to identify patterns in the data that give you insight into your audience’s thinking and behavior. This insight allows you to create a website that truly takes into account the needs of your target audience. The more customers who have great experiences with your brand, the better. Whether they are spreading the word about your business or power users of an account themselves, you can’t deny the value of brand evangelists. When you don’t do user research, you take the chance of missing the mark, of missing something so fundamental about your target audience that they lose trust in you. And it can take a long time to earn someone’s trust back.

In our experience, these are the user research methods every marketer needs to have in their toolkit to help you better understand your audience. 

  • User interviews
    To research how users think and feel. We recommend doing 5 30-minute, one-on-one interviews for each priority user group.
  • Keyword research
    To uncover user search intent, learn about how users think, what language they use to find your website and competitor websites
  • Google analytics or other traffic data
    To learn about how users behave on your existing website
  • Heatmaps, surveys, and polls
    To learn about how users behave, think, and feel within the context of using your existing website.
  • Card sorting and tree testing
    To learn about how users think about organizing different topics and get insight into the specific language they use
  • Customer service/feedback records
    To uncover user frustrations with the existing product or service
  • Customer reviews on Google and elsewhere on the interwebs
    To learn about how users perceive an existing company or brand
  • Usability/User testing
    To learn about how users behave and think when using an existing product or when using early design prototypes, can be moderated or unmoderated (read about the usability testing we did for for an interactive touchscreen experience)
  • Observational research
    To observe how users behave and think in their natural environment (read about the on-location research we did before designing an airline booking platform and cruise check-in application)

What is usability testing (aka user testing)?

Usability testing, often referred to as user testing, is the process of testing a person’s ability to complete a task on a website or other digital product. It’s a form of user research that’s about making sure the website actually delivers on meeting the user needs you identified in earlier research. Usability testing helps to ensure the website design allows the user to accomplish the tasks we identified as being top priorities through earlier user research. The focus here is on testing the website, not the user’s ability. It’s about making sure the product does what it’s supposed to do. When we identify usability issues through testing, we’re able to make design adjustments to further reduce the risk of launching a new website that does not work for your users. If you create a website that doesn’t actually meet the needs of your customers, then you run the risk of losing existing customers and not attracting as many new ones. Usability testing can be moderated or unmoderated and can be conducted in person or remotely.

  • Unmoderated usability testing is when you prepare a usability test in advance and user testers complete it on their own time, independently, without being guided or observed. 
    • Good for navigation testing or information finding
    • Good for A/B testing
  • Moderated usability testing is when a researcher is present with the user (in-person or via Zoom, etc.) and guides them through the usability test, observing them complete the tasks and asking questions where appropriate to glean more insight into why users do what they do.
    • Good for more complex functionality testing
    • Good for messaging testing

Usability testing is particularly valuable further along in the design process, once you have a workable design prototype. Usability testing for top tasks during the UX and Design phases of a website design project help to identify any problem areas in the design so the team can iron them out prior to entering the development phase. Testing reduces the risk that a new website will go live that has a negative impact on the user experience. Usability testing can also be a great way to help you measure the success of your design project.

Ready to redesign your website in a way that actually meets the needs of your target audience? Get in touch.

Shannon Ruetsch

Head of Experience Design