How do we know if our website is actually working the way we want it to? Web analytics data can tell us part of the story, but we need user feedback to help us understand the full picture. Otherwise, we know what people clicked on, but when we don’t know why.
Fortunately, getting user feedback doesn’t have to be expensive. There are “do it yourself” methods that you can use right now.
You can set up a quick survey (just a few general questions) on your website to get a sense of your user’s feelings, likes and dislikes, and pain points. It’s a great starting point to get a broad view from many different perspectives.
Here are the questions I would suggest as a starting point:
- What brought you to our website today?
- Were you able to do what you hoped to do?
- What did you enjoy about your experience?
- What can we do to make the website better?
Note that this type of survey doesn’t make a lot of sense as a pop-up on your homepage. Not only are homepage pop-ups annoying to most people, the users haven’t had a chance to interact with the site yet (since they haven’t even loaded the homepage). An interview like this makes much more sense as an exit interview, or possibly a subtle call to action on 2nd or 3rd page into the visit.
A user interview is a conversation with a user so you can hear about their experience with your website. If you’re new to user interviews, here are some quick tips for getting started:
- Practice with a couple of co-workers and friends so you can get your style and approach smoothed out a bit, before you start working with real users.
- Keep it conversational and natural. I find that the best interview style for me is what folks in the industry call “semi-structured.” It’s a hybrid between just going through a list of questions, and just having an open-ended conversation. So, do you have a list of questions? Yes. Do you read down the list like a drill sergeant? No. Keep it natural. The interviewee is doing most of the talking of course, but your goal is to keep them talking, and to listen, and to probe to really understand what they’re trying to say.
- See if you can get the user to talk about a specific thing that happened in the past. When a user generalizes and says “it’s hard to find things,” that’s interesting and you can explore those experiences and feelings with them. But when somebody tells you “last week I tried to search for the conference agenda, and I typed in “xyz” and the only result I got was “abc,” that can be especially useful because it’s so specific and real.
- Have the website available for you and the participant. Whether you’re conducting the interview in-person or over the phone, make sure the website is available for both of you to reference as you talk. Trying to discuss the website based on memory alone won’t get you very far at all. If you’re doing the interview over the phone, have a Webex or GoTo Meeting set up so you can both look at the website together.
This is the single most important thing you can do. Surveys and interviews give you useful information, sure. But actually sitting down with a user while they try and navigate your website? It’s the motherlode of user feedback. It’s pure gold. The more you do it the better your website will be and the more knowledgeable you will become about the different ways that people interact with websites. It is truly mind-expanding!
Like interviewing, it takes a little practice to get good at usability testing – but it’s not rocket science. There are DIY approaches that can be invaluable.
Here are some tips for getting started:
- Narrow your focus. Chances are your website is way too big and complex to usability test all of it (that’s a big part of why the surveys and interviews are valuable, they fill in some of those gaps). Usability testing is an investment of time and effort, even on a small, DIY scale. Decide what questions you need to answer. Orient everything you do around that.
- Think of one important user goal or activity that you’d like to understand better. Good candidates are e-commerce checkout, event registration, and other conversions that are critical to the success of your website.
- Set up a time with a friend or a co-worker to sit down with you and do this task. When you ask them to do the task, frame it in terms of the goal: for instance, “register for the annual conference.”
- Before the user gets started, ask them to talk to you and explain their thought process. This is called the “think aloud” technique.
- Watch and learn!
Once you’ve gone through this little experiment, you may just catch the usability testing bug. If so, your next steps might be….
- Think about ways you can expand and apply this type of research to your website. Other tasks? Who should you test with?
- Keep learning. Refine your techniques and your approach to the level where you are most comfortable.
If you are just going for a basic, DIY approach, Steve Krug, who wrote the usability classic, Don’t Make Me Think, also has a great book on guerrilla usability testing and it’s a relatively quick read.
If you decide that you want to take your usability testing skills to the “next level,” here is another great book that can introduce you to more formal techniques and advanced theories around usability testing.
Handbook of Usability Testing by Jeffrey Rubin, Dana Chisnell, and Jared Spool
User research can range from guerrilla methods to formally trained PhDs working in labs and running statistical analysis. Good news: even the most basic, informal methods are better than nothing. Astronomically better! I hope that some of these ideas encourage you to give user research a shot.