We now live in an age where it's pretty common to hear requests for a "user-friendly" website. I mean, nobody wants the website that's nasty to its users, right? But what does a user-friendly site mean? And how do we even begin to create a site that our users will find useful?
Being user-friendly really refers to the kind of user experience we want an audience to have. And a good user experience is one that makes it as easy as possible for users to accomplish their goals with the tool (in this case, a website) in front of them. So one of the first steps in creating that user-friendly website is to understand the needs and goals of its users.
Aside: While a widely-used term, the word "user" can sometimes feel sterile and cold when we're referring to real people. Actual humans! Not machines. So for the rest of this post, I'll be using words like humans, audience, and people, instead of users.
What you think you know
You may think you already know your audiences. You might even already have stats, market data, demographics, analytics, and other quantitative data. Those are great to reference when starting the conversation about improving your website. But those things usually just tell you one part of the story.
In fact, that data may start to provide enough information to create hunches, or worse, assumptions about what audiences need. It can be dangerous to use assumptions to drive your website improvements. Doing so can lead to spending time and energy solving for the wrong problem and making the wrong choices. See also: unfriendly websites.
Instead, it's more effective to fill in the blanks with knowledge, and validate those assumptions by getting to know the people using your website. Great questions to start asking are:
- What do you think you know? How do you know it?
- What assumptions are you making?
- What do you not know about your audiences that you wish you knew?
Answering these questions will probably create more questions you'll want to know the answers to. And those answers should come from your audience.
How to actually know
Once you have a list of what you want to know about your audience, there are a number of ways to gain deeper understanding.
Surveys – Surveys can be used to ask people specific questions about anything from website use ("Why did you visit the site today?") to engagement with competitors ("How often have you purchased from [competitor] in the past 6 months?"). Crafting good questions does require a measure of care, but well-questioned surveys provide rich and useful feedback. Surveys can be solicited from a targeted email list, social media, or right from your website, providing many options to be as specific or as broad as those channels allow.
Interviews – That's right, get in front of your audience and ask them questions. How do you find your audience? You could run a survey and include a question that asks participants if they'd be interested in a followup interview. Again, prompts from social media or an email ask are useful ways to start to root out your audience.
Observation – Want to know how people are using your site beyond what analytics can tell you? Ask them to use it while you watch. Better yet, observe them in the field (for example, for a sales rep audience that uses a website on sales calls) and not in your office.
Test – If you have very specific questions about how people use your website ("Do people notice the donate button at the bottom?" "How are people typically getting to the contact page?"), this is a great time to run a test with them on your website. You can implement a test remotely with services like Usabilla or UserTesting or ask people (perhaps in conjunction with an interview) to test your site in person.
While these certainly aren't the only ways to get to know your audience, these will be some of the most effective and potentially eye-opening exercises to do. The biggest takeaway here should be that assumptions are not fact. Validating those assumptions will lead you down the path of website friendliness, not website nastiness.