User Experience -- No Magic, No Snake Oil, Just Data and Effort-Driven Results

Echidnas doing user experience research card sort

User Experience is such a broad topic that it can often feel confusing to people not immersed in it. And, unfortunately, the world of web optimization in all its forms has historically been rife with snake-oil salespeople and slick talkers that earn their living playing a virtual shell game, where the only thing that disappears is your money.

User Experience isn’t smoke and mirrors. It’s not puffery or vague recommendations that read more like a generic horoscope than actionable content. The right UX team can bring tremendous value to your efforts and organization. But it’s important to know what you’re getting.

Our UX offerings can range from a casual overview to a full-scale investigative experience that not only helps define your information architecture, but also validates it against multiple audiences to make sure it works. 

So what can you expect from a UX report? That all depends.

Crawling towards UX success

At the lowest level, our user experience analysis can provide you a thousand-foot overview of your existing information architecture. Your IA is not just your navigation, but rather how all the elements of your site combine to help users interact with your content, by working within accessibility and SEO structures to ensure users can find and consume your content in a way that aligns with their needs, desires, and expectations.

In some engagements, especially at the beginning of our discovery process, we’ll do a high-level overview of a site’s user experience. That means looking at the navigation structure, examining the language, exploring how users flow through the site, and exploring to whom the site appears to be targeted -- and, more importantly, seeing if that aligns with to whom the site should be targeted. 

The challenge with this is that much of it is based on hypotheses that we develop. Though we have a tremendous amount of experience from which we’re able to draw informed conclusions, we’re still largely making educated “guesses.” Without access to analytics, we can’t confirm usage and behaviour patterns; without first-hand insight from users, we can only infer behaviour. 

As a starting point, it’s a good way to get some insight into potential challenges and potential easy wins. But if you really want to move the needle on user experience, you likely need more. 

If you foresee a new web project or site redevelopment in your future, it’s a good idea to enable some form of analytics now -- that way when the time comes, you’ll already have data to start with.

Tentative first steps

Good user experience research is just that -- research. It’s a formula that takes data, multiplies it by experience and empathy, to produce exponentially more valuable results. 

At this level, we’re looking at your analytics data. So how are people actually using your site? Where are their entry points? Do high-profile IA elements actually correspond to what users actually want, or are they simply “solving” internal political problems? 

We’re also engaging in a more comprehensive information-gathering practice. This can include surveys -- both to internal audiences and actual users -- and focus groups. For many of these companies, these tentative first steps tend to focus on internal audiences. But there’s a danger to that.

As much as we believe we understand our customers, their needs, and their behaviours, the reality is that we’re viewing them through the prism of our own organizational biases. We’re inferring behaviour, desires, and actions based upon what we want people to do -- maybe more than what they need.

Want to know which organizations are skewed by this internal prism? Look at any site that has a homepage “letter from the president” or that makes their “About” information the most prominent content. That’s internal alignment based around the thinking that users want to “learn” about the company first, before buying -- and that, in our experience, is backwards. Most people want what they want, when they want it, with a minimum of fuss (and clicks). Some consumers will want to validate their purchase decision (whether that’s signing up for a course or buying a product) by learning more about the organization, but that’s secondary to solving the primary need of the primary audience.

That said, we do value internal feedback. It helps us understand what internal audiences are faced with (especially customer service-oriented staff!) and also allows us to understand organizational goals and challenges that a website can support.

A report based on this level of engagement does provide value. Analytics help us understand, to a degree, what users are doing. And internal focus groups where staff are advocating on behalf of the people with whom they interact help us contextualize that information. But it’s at the next step that turns a good UX engagement into a great one.

Walking a pathway to success

If you are really serious about understanding how to make a positive user experience, then you have to engage users. Actual people -- not advocates, not assumptions, but real-life users, customers, and non-affiliated everyday people. 

And the farther you get from the organization, the better.

Look, analytics are great. But that only tells you where people are going. It doesn’t say where they want to go, what they really want to look for, and what they would prefer to do. It shows us how people are “forced” to use your site, as opposed to how they actually want to.

There are also challenges with internal advocates -- and I’m going to add invested customer groups to that list. Often we have clients that want to rely on a defined user advisory group, but the challenge with that is those people are often not representative of the broader user group. They are invested in the organization and, as such, likely have greater familiarity with the current setup and are impacted by organizational biases that they’ve developed over the years. 

What you want is the 90 per cent. You want the vast majority of your users who are only coming to your site a couple of times, looking for a solution to their problem, and then actively completing a transaction. You don’t want the two per cent who are bookmarking your site to check out your low-traffic news section off the homepage. That’s just not representative behaviour.

You want the people who see an ad in their Facebook feed, have a Tweet show up in their timeline, or who search Google for “Where can I find X?” and are driven to your site. More often than not, that’s your audience. 

And the best way to find out what they want? What they truly want? Ask!

A UX engagement at this level will involve focus groups with various audience members. It could involve a survey. It could involve a card sort to help understand how actual people contextualize content -- and, even better, what terms they’re using to describe those content groupings.

Imagine how much more effective your SEO efforts could be if you knew not only what people actually wanted to do on your site, but also if you understood how people were searching and what language they were using to affect that search?

Through focus groups and moderated user testing, we can also find out what people want to do on your site. When they’re driven to a page through search, what do they want? What other information would they expect to find? Do they need ancillary support? 

A report that incorporates this, along with the internal findings, helps you better target your efforts and align them to corporate goals. It can help refine your delivery, presentation, and content strategy. And, ultimately, it provides a better user experience.

Hitting the ground running

At the highest-level of UX engagement, you’re going to take all of the above and validate it. For as much information as we gather, we’re still going to be making some assumptions based on data and experience, as well as alignment with mental models. 

So it makes sense to test those assumptions and validate them against actual users. This can be done through tree tests to evaluate the navigation, first-click tests and heat map-generation to ensure that IA elements intuitively support user needs, and moderated user testing to identify any behaviour patterns that don’t readily make themselves available through data collection.

This information can be used to further refine your efforts. From a web perspective, it’s a whole lot easier to fix things at the conceptual stage than it is once you're down the path of development. Our belief is that it’s far more cost-effective to invest a little more up front on information gathering, so that you can be confident that your decisions are informed, rather than needing to fix things down the road, when it’s measurably more complicated -- and costly.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint 

No matter whether you choose crawl, stumble, walk, or run, the reality is that user experience is a marathon, not a sprint. The decisions you make today will likely need to evolve as the years go on. Testing, retesting, iterating, and refining are all part of the process and, if embraced, can keep your organization at the vanguard of customer satisfaction. 

I’d love to give you a “one-size-fits-all” answer for what you can expect from your UX efforts, but really you get out of it what you’re willing to put into it. We’re happy to help discuss your options and help you figure out what cadence is right for you!




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