Website Research

Posted by Donna Rouviere Anderson June 23, 2015

“The element of chance in basic research is overrated. Chance is a lady who smiles only upon those few who know how to make her smile.”

— Hans Selye

Before starting to design a website, we gather all the information we need to understand and define the problem the client is trying to solve by creating the website.

We research the general landscape for the site and the industry in which it will reside.

We consider technology constraints and opportunities that go along with the site.

We look at similar sites to see what the client’s competitors are doing. We check out the features and content of those sites, focusing mainly on those sites’ users and customers. We identify through both our clients and web research who the clients consider to be their competitors and find out what products and services they consider to be competing ones. A competitor is any other solution a customer could use instead of our client’s solution. We look at the design language that the competitors use and consider how it could uncover an opportunity to differentiate our client from the field and take a different approach that still would meet the needs of the client's industry.

We look carefully at the client’s existing site if they already have one, outlining it and considering what can be used from it and how it can be made more effective.

We collect any existing content – text, photographs and graphics and study them.

We look at best practices inside and outside of the industry – websites the client likes as well as websites we think demonstrate best practices both in general and for the specific industry. 

We consider past strategies that have worked well in similar situations and include past or similar ideas from our library.

Having collected all of this information, we organize it into categories. We look at the site’s goals and priorities, its frustrations, the demographics of the audience and user characteristics.

This opens the way for us to look at the risks and opportunities that the research brings to light in the form of unexpected customer and user needs.

It is quite normal for our research to reveal some significant business problems that need to be overcome. Sometimes the client is not clear who the potential users are, overestimates the demand for a particular product of service, or wants technology that will limit the future development of the site. We share our major concerns with the client, recognizing that they may have information we don’t that could alter our conclusions. We discuss anything that we think might be a major problem and its implications, and let the client draw their own conclusions about these issues.

At this point, we usually take a little time to ponder about the project and its implications to make sure we are moving forward in a way that is good for our client and their customers, ethical and truthful and will be upgradable in the long run.

Using our research, we create personas – composite individual profiles who represent typical users of the website. Personas can include anyone who uses a website – customers, employees who input information into a website, and others who are affected by the website.

If possible, we try to meet with some of the clients’ actual or potential customers and employees who will be involved with the website to interview them about their use of the website, what they would like about it and what they don’t as well as how, when, where and on what devices they would use the website. We ask these people to explain what key tasks they would perform on the website, how frequently they would perform these key tasks and to identify and explain potential use patterns.

Our goal is to connect with the people who really matter, the real target audience for the website.

In cases where the client’s budget will not allow this type of interviews, we get detailed descriptions of the client’s customers from the client. This is a distant second, however, to having the opportunity to actually talk to the people who will use the website.

From our interviews, we clarify distinctions between the people who will use the website arising from their purpose for using it, how they use it, the devices they access it from and perhaps other demographics.

We group the interviews into categories based on these characteristics and prioritize them by primary persona, secondary persona and so on. We usually try to keep the set down to five different personas.

We then develop a composite personality for each of the persona categories, with a narrative that describes how a typical person in that category would use the website a particular way. We define three or four of their goals in using the website so we can prioritize the features they want to use and emphasize those in the website’s design. We include how the person should feel while using the website and its associated product or service. We give the person a representative name that is easy to pronounce and remember and include a stock photo of someone who looks like we think they would look so that we can identify with them while we design the website.

We prioritize the personas and choose the primary one that is the best target to design the website for. Then we consider how well designing for this persona also will satisfy other personas’ goals and how we can meet their needs without interfering with the primary personas’ goals. We use market share, revenue and budget constraints to make these decisions.

We write a one or two page narrative for each persona that includes the representative photo, any workflow or other diagrams that would be important, quotes or illustrations about the persona’s environment and activities or other helpful illustrations.

We use this to create a presentation and written report for the client.

In the presentation, we walk through our research findings first and then introduce the personas to the client to help them understand how we developed the persona set and how it makes sense. We answer any questions and get their feedback.

We focus on these things that will have the greatest impact on the client’s product definition or accompanying business strategy, as well as anything that will have a major implication for the design.

Where our findings differ from the client’s assumptions, we bring up our evidence for them and talk them through with the client so that we are on the same page.

Once we have reached agreement with the client on the research findings, we can go on to define the website’s requirements. This is a topic for a future blog.