There's a crucial question that we need to answer, before we start writing or editing our content. One question to rule them all...
Who are your users?
Do you know who they are, what their drivers are and; what are they trying to do on your website? Of course what we are talking about here is good old fashioned research! Here we will explore some of the awesome tools and techniques you can use. I've stuck to ones that you can DIY on a tight budget, how deep you want to go with these is completely up to you. If you have the budget (or are time poor) you may like to explore some of these techniques further with a digital agency partner.
Your detective tools for understanding users:
Card sorting is a fantastic technique for realising how your users think about content topics and groupings. With navigation and page titles, it's easy to get stuck in the internal language your organisation uses. For example you might add a new document under your main heading of 'policies' as it came from your policy team. However through a card sorting session, you might well discover that your users would look for that document under the 'resources' heading.
The basics of a card sort are that you create a list (post-it notes work) of all the headings or pages you might have for your website. You then ask users to group these the cards under headings that make sense to them.
For example they may take the headings of: blog, contact us, and staff and group these together. There are some great online tools that let you run a card sorting session online, allowing you to send it out to people to complete, making it almost like a fun game. You can also run these inhouse - using small groups and post-it notes. The beauty of the latter option is that you can observe and ask questions of why they have grouped things the way they have, which often unearths deeper insights into your users thought processes and behaviour.
Some of the easiest research methods are the first ones we forget. One of my favourite ways for gathering a little detective intel is talking to your front facing staff. This might include your sales team, call centre or customer success team. In one company I was previously working for, I gathered a multitude of insights from listening to some of the calls coming in to the call center. Some companies even ask any new recruit, no matter what the position, to spend at least a day in the call centre. This is a fantastic way to make sure you are putting customers first and understanding your users!
Here's a few sample questions to start you off:
Who's your ideal buyer?
- Can you describe to me what their typical working day would be like?
- What common objections to do they have?
- Do you remember the last client you talked to that mentioned our website?
- Who were they, what did they say?
- What was it they were looking for?
Do you think you have a 'typical caller'?
- How would you describe them?
- What you would be the top 3 questions you get asked everyday from callers?
- When was the last time a caller said they were ringing because they couldn't find something on our site?
- What was it that they needed help with?(etc).
Top task research
One of the most valuable pieces of information you can discover in your detective work is your top tasks; what users are trying to do! Knowing this means you can prioritise and start to focus on what matters to your users the most.
Your tasks - we start by creating an exhaustive list of all the tasks a user might complete on your website. For example on the SilverStripe website we could start to list: schedule a SilverStripe Platform Demo, become a professional partner, download open source software, contact the office, search for a digital agency that builds with SilverStripe... the list goes on. Depending on the size of your site you may want to shortlist these tasks before you move onto the next step.
Get customers to vote - next you'll send out a one question survey for your users to vote on the most important tasks. It’s best if you use scoring so you can analyse and limit users to selecting their top 5 tasks only.
After these steps you'll have some valuable insights into what users are trying to do on your website.
For a great case study and explanation of the step by step process see this case study on the Digital Gov website.
Talk to your audience in real life
Another simpler form of research that is often overlooked is doing one-on-one interviews with your users. Inviting them in for a meeting or coffee can be a simple way of gathering information and deducing what your user’s behaviour drivers are. While you're not going to have a significant sample size, it will be an effective way for you to start to build empathy with your users. If you're considering doing individual interviews then you can use these to start to form personas.
Watch them online
Okay, okay I know this sounds creepy, stay with me though. It's known in research that asking people how they will behave is not always a good indicator for how they will actually behave. For example when it comes to buying practices, you may be getting a logical answer for what is actually an emotional decision.
Enter: observation. Now of course this isn't creepy as you'll have their permission to do so. A simple DIY hack is to invite a couple of users in to do some research, add coffee and muffins and ask them to complete a task on your website while you observe.
For example you may ask them to complete one of your top tasks (more on this below). You can observe; first click (where did they try first?), How long did the task take? What did they read? What path did they take? There's also software that will let you perform this type of research from the comfort of your desk (such as Mouse Flow).
If you don't already have them, then I recommend creating a set of personas. For this you can complete interviews (often individually) to create a set of personas that represent your users. These will be generalised representations and can be a great way of keeping your audience top of mind. Some companies even go as far to give their personas quirky names and fake photos! A good persona will help you understand the challenges your users face and how you can help them. Your personas might include challenges, goals, common objectives as well as their demographics.
This link explores getting started with personas; including 20 questions to use for interviews.
I have omitted our good friend GA here as we delve into data further in our next principle. I'll only say here that making GA your best friend will go a long way into understanding your users on an ongoing basis and is a valuable weapon toolkit.
Ask them online
Creating an online survey is often the first thing that comes to mind for research, which is why I've left it until last! You can use an agency to conduct a piece of research like this, or take the DIY option using one of the survey tools available (such as SurveyAnyplace). The beauty of an online survey is it's cost effectiveness and ability to reach a large sample size. You could consider a small segment to cover a particular focus area that you are working on, or a wider use base survey to cover off the goals of your site. With online surveys it's easy to get carried away and my tip would be to consider the length, as the shorter it is the more likely the completion rate will be higher. You can also consider offering an incentive to complete it.
Remember this list is not exhaustive! There a loads of ways to get your detective work done and you may even create some of your own, always keep learning.
Once you've got a clearer understanding of your users you need to consider ways to keep it front of mind. For this we can steal a brilliant trick from the Agile philosophy (which we love at SilverStripe) to keep our users in mind.
In Agile you create what's called a user story for each piece of work that you have to do.
My number #1 tip for you is to employ this method in your web content work from now on. Make it a habit that within your content team to create a user story before any writing happens. User stories are super easy as well! A typical format would look something like this, and you can adapt it of course to suit your teams needs:
As a <type of user>, I want <goal> so that I <benefit>
For example for SilverStripe website might be...
As a <comms manager working in government> I want <to learn more about open source software> so that I <can figure out if it's right for our agency and our objectives>.
This simple step means that for every piece of content, you've considered who you're writing for (persona) and what they are trying to achieve (top task).
Taming a content beast isn't easy, to help we have created this eBook, download it today!
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