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Chapter 4. getting to know your users > learning about your users

learning about your users

Because your site’s success is dependent on what your users need and want and do, it’s important to learn as much about them as you can. By following your users—identifying who they are, anticipating their needs, analyzing their behavior, responding to their requests—you can build a successful site, almost every time.

But you’re not just learning about users for the sake of it. All user research should be directed toward the goal of improving your site.

5 Key questions in user research:

  1. Who are my users? Having a profile of your typical user helps you build the site with them in mind. See profiling your users, p. 50 and visualizing your users, p. 54.

  2. How many are there? You can’t plan an event without knowing how many people will show. Same goes for web sites: The number of users impacts costs and revenues. See estimating audience size, p. 52.

  3. How do they access the web? People experience the web differently, depending on their location and equipment. The more you know about their set-up, the better you can tailor your site to their needs. See profiling your users, p. 50.

  4. What do they need? The most important thing to learn about your users is what they need from you. By filling a real need, you give people a reason to keep coming back. See predicting what users want, p. 58 and understanding user needs, p. 60.

  5. What do they do? When it comes right down to it, this is all that really matters: What do users do once they’re on your site? See understanding user behavior, p. 62.

It’s easier to answer these questions on the web than in many other industries. Online surveys make data collection more convenient, and traffic logs let site owners see exactly how people use their sites—where they come from, where they click, how long they stay, and what they do.

For example, instead of asking people what they like about your site—or what they use and how often—you can just run a traffic report and see for sure. This reduces your reliance on opinion-based research, such as focus groups.

quantitative vs. qualitative research

There are a lot of ways to learn about your users (See tools for user research, p. 48). You can field surveys, conduct interviews, analyze traffic patterns, and run usability tests. There are methods for every budget and temperament, and each one helps you gain specific insights into the user.

Because there are so many techniques, it’s important to know when and how to use each. First, though, some basics: There are two kinds of user research: qualitative and quantitative.

2 Kinds of research:

  • Quantitative research gives you objective, measurable facts—the kind of data you’d put in a chart.

  • Qualitative research gives you subjective opinions—the kind of data you’d put in a sentence, not a chart.

Quantitative data is usually the first thing you reach for when making a user-related decision. You want to know if there’s anything definite on which to hang your hat, such as a traffic report showing that a feature is popular or industry data showing that other related sites are popular. See predicting what users will want, p. 58.

In the absence of quantitative proof—or to supplement it—you look at qualitative data, such as customer feedback or focus group results showing that consumers express interest in a feature. Generally speaking, though, you want to follow what users do and not what they say.

Quantitative data can help you decide what to do. Qualitative data can tell you how to do it.

Once you’ve decided to launch a site, qualitative data becomes very important—as a way to get inside the user’s mind. Let’s say, for example, that you run a banking site, and you’ve decided to add a bill-paying feature. You should go out and talk to your customers about how they currently pay their bills. After a few interviews, you’ll have a good sense of what your bill-paying application needs to do. (See understanding user needs, p. 60.)

So quantitative data can help you decide what to do, and qualitative data can tell you how to do it.

When to use quantitative research:

  • To understand who your users are

  • To understand how people use your site

  • To assess which features are most popular

  • To predict how new sites will perform

When to use qualitative research:

  • To understand how users accomplish and think about a task

  • To identify what confuses users

  • To understand what people think of your site, brand, or organization

Again, what’s unique about the web is the amount of quantitative data that’s readily available and the way it can shape a site’s evolution. See monitoring & evolving your site, p. 240.

key steps in user research

Each stage of site development should be accompanied by a round of user “discovery” to learn what you need to know about what your users need.

before site launch

  • Do traffic analysis or market analysis to confirm that there is consumer interest in the site you’re planning to launch.

  • Create a user profile to identify and describe the target audience.

  • Estimate size of target audience so you can plan accordingly.

  • Interview users about what they need from your site, and how they get by without it.

as you design

  • Run usability tests to (1) make sure your assumptions are correct, and (2) catch any mistakes in the interface that you may have missed.

after you launch

  • Study your traffic logs to learn how people are actually using the site: Where do they come from? How long do they stay? What features do they use? Where do they exit?

  • Run usability tests to help you answer specific questions about how the site is used. Why are users choosing one path over another? Why do they leave?

  • Study customer feedback to understand how people feel about your site and to identify what’s frustrating or angering them.

  • Field a user survey to learn more details about your audience and confirm they are who you think they are.

tools for user research

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