10 mins | 22 Aug, 2023

Understanding what your website users really want

For businesses, the majority of people who land on your website are not yet ready to buy from you. Most will have stumbled upon it through a search or recommendation. Some may have returned after a previous visit to learn more about your offering. Nearly everyone who navigates your content is still considering:

  1. If they want what you sell
  2. If you have the best version of that thing for their specific needs

A website's job is to inform, educate, and entertain its users to the point where they can make a purchase decision or move on.

The most effective websites do a great job of providing users with all the information they need in order to make that decision. That could be a mixture of lots of things: product or service information, proof of past success, company information or brand values, and importantly an engaging story that gets users excited about your product or service.

This article is going to cover the importance of understanding what your users (really) want from a website visit, why their needs are important, and practical ways you can go about discovering them.

A short primer on User-Centric Design

Before we get into the how, we should first consider why… What we’re talking about here is user-centric design, or making sure your website meets the needs of your users first and foremost. There’s a lot to unpack with that which is not going to be the main focus of this article. There are however techniques you can use within User Experience Design that help you discover real user needs (not just anecdotal reporting) and then apply that learning to inform your design process. This will ensure your end result meets the needs of the user and gives them a much more positive experience.

What we’re aiming for is user satisfaction. That doesn't necessarily mean a beautiful aesthetic which wows with the latest trend in UI design. It means did the user get everything they needed from their visit today? Did they answer all their questions and have a positive experience?

One way to increase the chance of that happening is to take some time to learn what your particular users are looking for when they visit your site. If you know what you’re users are looking for, then tailor your online experience to provide those things in a way that's clear and easy to navigate, you’re much more likely to have a successful website that people want to engage with. This is user-centric design thinking.

User Experience is digital Customer Service

User experience and user-centric design thinking are really just good old-fashioned customer service. A website transaction is typically faceless (the users don't get to speak to a human). That doesn’t mean they don't want good customer service through. In fact, it’s good or bad customer service that leads to increases or dropoffs in customer numbers, both off and online.

Customer Service Statistics

Before the internet, most purchase decisions were made face-to-face with a sales advisor who could answer questions and talk you through all the important information. They were able to think quickly and steer the conversation in ways to meet the customer needs as they were discussed.

Now we’re transacting online, your website has to be the sales advisor. It cannot speak directly to the customer though and ask questions to tailor its approach (not quite yet anyway…). Therefore, we have to consider ahead of time all the possible needs of a user and create content that speaks to those needs in an informative way. We have to provide features and content that allow the user to discover for themselves everything they require to get excited by this particular purchase decision.

We should be thinking about the user experience as our digital customer service representative.

Customer Experience Micro-study - Ikea

An example of great online customer service (and my usual go-to example for manufacturers who want to sell well online), is Ikea. Ikea revolutionised the way we purchase home furnishings and over the last few years, they have been developing their online experience to match that.

If you visit their website, it is somewhat different from your typical furniture eCommerce store. It compliments their physical store well and really offers quite a premium sales experience.

Ikea product page
Ikea product page

Some highlights you get from the Ikea website:

  • A bold, clear, and accessible layout that's very easy to navigate
  • A smooth product discovery process that feels simple and gives you room to explore
  • Shop by room follows the same pattern you know from visiting their stores
  • Hotspots on room layouts allow you to zoom in on particular products
  • Videos featuring product demonstrations fit seamlessly into image galleries
  • Intuitive search and product filtering
  • Comprehensive product information that's clear and easy to understand
  • A best-in-class checkout experience

All these things make Ikea’s website simple to use, and easy to learn about their product offering. As a potential customer, it gives me all the information I need to make an informed purchase decision.

How this helps convert more customers

So, how does this help sell more anyway?

When considering a new transaction, either purchasing a product or enquiring about a service, when you hit the submit button, you’re making a commitment (that will probably cost you in some way). The ONLY reason you do this, is because you think what you’ll get back in return is worth more than what you’re going to pay for it. Depending on the nature and size of the purchase commitment, that might not be an easy decision to make. There are all sorts of factors to weigh up in whether this transaction will give me everything I need, not to mention that you might be able to get it cheaper elsewhere…

So, we need to be convinced our decision is the right one. As a potential customer you have a list of requirements in your head about what you need this purchase to accomplish (it could be buried deep in the back somewhere and not really part of your contextual thinking, but it's there). Not only do you have non-negotiable requirements, but there are also nice to-haves in there too. So, when reviewing a product or service, you go through a sort of mental checkbox exercise in your head, confirming it meets all your needs. It’s our job as website designers to ensure the site (or your digital customer sales representative) is armed with all the right information (in the right places) so the customer can check off their requirements and know that this is indeed the right place to be.

Digital Sales Representative
Your Digital Sales Representative

The best-case scenario will provide potential customers with the opportunity to go on a journey of discovery about your offering in their own time. Giving them space to investigate and learn more, dive deep into the topics of most interest and arrive in a place where they are excited about owning what you are selling. You should aspire to take users on a journey that they won't get elsewhere, and the best way to do that is to know upfront what they are really looking for.

Practical ways to understand what your users want

So hopefully by now, you’re convinced that providing users with what they want is important, and doing it well can lead to higher sales or enquiries for you. How do you go about uncovering user needs though?

The following are some tried and tested techniques you can use to uncover user intent, desires, and needs. Some of these are quick to start and require little up-front planning, others will take time to implement and gleam useful results. There is no one way to approach this, the techniques you employ will depend on your circumstances and end goal.

Use website analytics

A simple way to get started with a process of understanding users is to look at the data of current visitors to your website you may already have. Most websites have some visitor analytics being recorded (typically Google Analytics), and if you don’t you really should. These analytics will tell you which pages are being visited and by whom and if you get clever with it you can view journies people have taken throughout the site. By studying your analytics you can start to build a picture of what is most engaging on your current site, which content is being interacted with the most, and what’s being ignored.

Google Analytics
Google Analytics

Keyword research

A way to uncover what users are searching for online is by conducting keyword research. Billions of searches are performed on Google every day (around 8.5b currently) and all those searches are logged. Tools available (some free, some paid for) will give very accurate details about what those search terms are and who’s conducting them. You can use these tools to figure out the most important searches (or the greatest number) people are making around your topic of interest. This will give you a guide to what’s important for most users. You can then use this to help plan your content. It's also important to remember that user experience effects your SEO, so the two topics are interconnected.

Competitor analysis

Another easy way to get started with this type of research is by looking at your competitors and what they are giving users. This requires little up-front resources and can be done simply by spending time reviewing their websites. A word of caution though, just because your competitor is doing something, doesn't mean it's what your target users want. They could have wasted their efforts creating content that doesn’t meet user needs. Competitor analysis can be done quite effectively in conjunction with user interviews to gain more useful insight though.

Heatmaps and session recordings

There are various tools available that will allow you to record sessions of people using your website. These can then be viewed as heatmaps, showing the most popular content on each page, where people scroll down to, where their attention is drawn to, and what buttons and CTA’s gets the most clicks. Heatmaps are great for learning about current users and what content appeals to them the most.

Heatmap study
Heatmap study

User interviews, Surveys and feedback

If you really want to learn about specific user needs, then nothing beats speaking to them directly. You can learn so much from sitting with a user for an hour discussing their needs and it’s been shown you can get well-rounded and very valuable insights from speaking to as little as 5 users.

If you can’t speak directly to users, then feedback surveys are a good option to consider, however, this becomes much more of a quantitative exercise than qualitative, as the response rate on surveys tends to be quite low and you may need to incentivise people to take part.

Social media listening

Social media listening is the process of monitoring conversations on social channels about a brand, product (or any specific topic really). This means reviewing comments, reviews, and polls to see how people are reacting to certain news or posts. You can use this to gauge general intent or opinions and also pick up on what people think might be missing from your offering. This can be done in a low-fi way (reviewing pages manually and reading through comment feeds) or there are a growing number of tools available to automate the process (which is a good option if there is a large volume of conversation going on).

Demographic profiling

Demographic profiling has become much easier in recent years, with the development of various social tools. It's now possible to create fairly accurate profiles of users based on their interests and use this to understand deeper routed personality insights. This can be very useful when considering how to message your potential customers.

Demographic profiling with Audiense
Demographic profiling with Audiense

A/B testing

A/B testing is a method of testing different versions of a web page in a live setting to figure out which one performs better. It is best done when you have a large volume of visitors and requires some automation to do it properly. It could be done on small elements (changing the colour of buttons, or the wording of a CTA). Or, it could be more dramatic changes, like one web page design over another. The idea is to split the visitors who visit a page, showing half one option and the other half another. You then log the results of the interactions on each option and review each for performance. A/B testing is quite an advanced technique and should be undertaken by experienced developers and data analysts. Although the technology for this is becoming more accessible all the time and soon it will likely be a standard feature of lots of websites CMSs.

Create user personas

Following your research, it is a good idea to create user personas. Learning what your website visitors want will often uncover different personas, where you’ll find you’re receiving 2, 3, or more different types of users. These users may have different needs and reasons for visiting your website. They also may also have different personality profiles and psychological triggers. Creating user personas will help you map out your target users, ensuring all project stakeholders are on the same page and who you’re ultimately selling to. This will help you make important decisions about the content your website needs.

A typical User Persona
A typical User Persona

Final thoughts

Understanding your user's needs doesn't have to be difficult, but the rewards for taking the time to do so can be huge. Often we think we know what people are looking for from us but those ideas can be wrong and lead us to creating content that misses the mark. Ultimately we need to focus on user-centric design thinking if we want to create websites that align with our target audience.

UX thinking is just customer service for the digital space. If we get it right, we provide our customers with everything they need to make confident purchase decisions.

If you want your website to succeed over your competitors, prioritising getting to know your users is a direct way to ensure you provide content that answers their questions. By setting out on a path of user discovery, and continuously working to improve your customer knowledge, you will always be one step ahead of the competition.

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