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If You Do One Thing This Year, Do Your Research

January 4, 2017

Regardless of how well we–or our clients–think we understand the audience and how we expect they will use a site, there are things that are revealed in research that can be surprising.

A few weeks ago, my 67-year old mother-in-law moved to the area and my husband decided to buy her an iPhone to make communication with her easier. About a week after her move, she asked me to recommend a local hairstylist for her. Thinking I was being extra helpful, I texted her the name of a stylist and sent her a link to a Google map which she could use to navigate directly to her. On a later visit I noticed she had her hair cut and I asked what she thought of the stylist. She proceeded to tell me that she went somewhere else because I never gave the information. Following some bickering, my husband pulled up the original text message on her phone, proving that I hadn’t dropped the ball. But this all led to the realization that she had no idea how to open a text message, nor did she have the Google Maps app installed, so my valiant efforts were completely pointless. Although I had the best intentions, I was under the impression that my mother-in-law would know what to do with the information I was sending her. I was completely wrong. As a usability expert, I really missed the mark, but an important lesson was learned.

When You Make Assumptions…

There’s an old expression about how making assumptions can make you look. I don’t think I need to elaborate further here, but it’s a true statement. Making assumptions about how users will perceive or interact with your website is liable to leave you in a risky position. With research, we can shed light on our audience’s behaviors and thought processes, which helps us make much more informed recommendations about how a site should look, feel and function. For us, every project, no matter how large or small, begins with research.

Sliders Are Evil. Or Are They?

Regardless of how well we–or our clients–think we understand the audience and how we expect they will use a site, there are things that are revealed in research that can be surprising. This year, for example, we’ve been heavily steering our clients away from sliders. Research findings among leading UX experts and our own analysis of our clients’ sites shows that sliders (or carousels) are not an effective way of communicating information. A web search on sliders will reveal the overwhelming distaste for them, including entire sites dedicated to their demise. When we talk about “banner blindness,” we’re referring to the idea that the information in these sliders is often completely overlooked and users rarely read or click on anything beyond the first one or two slides in the rotation. With that in mind, we designed a site for one of our Higher Ed clients that included a hero image with important navigation tools above and below to ensure we were most effectively using the space at the top of the homepage. During a student focus group in which we presented the design, a student asked why we didn’t have a slider on the homepage. Almost in unison, several other students chimed in to say they wanted a slider there to show different services and features of the school. Head scratching ensued.

What You Do Speaks Louder Than What You Say

What that episode also revealed was that it’s not unusual to see a discrepancy between what users will say they want (in a focus group or on a survey) and how they will interact with a site. This is why different methods of research must be used to try to create a complete picture—and also why research doesn’t end after launch. Using heatmapping tools or observing users navigating a site, we can monitor what their eye is drawn to and what interactions are most critical to them. Combining this with audience analytics, user feedback, performance tracking and accessibility tools, we can create a clearer picture of what is working or not working and why. Often the answer isn’t black and white. Although generalizations can be made about how most people use the web, each website will have a plethora of audience demographics to consider. Age, ethnicity, education level, access to technology, personal interests, online shopping habits and frequently used apps are among hundreds of other characteristics that will influence a user’s perception of your site and their experience on it.

Beyond Audience Research

It’s important to point out that research doesn’t just refer to surveying target audiences. Evaluating your website’s performance is a critical part of understanding how users respond to your site. Users viewing sites on desktop, tablet and mobile devices have expectations about how fast your site will load and how easily they will be able to access the information they need.

In the early days of the web, Flash technology dominated the trendiest sites, and users were willing to wait through pre-loaders to see cutting-edge animations and dynamic content. Fast-forward to 2017 and Google is actually blocking sites that use Flash on Chrome and requiring users to manually allow Flash content on a site-by-site basis. This is thanks to HTML5 and new scripting languages that offer lighter, more streamlined ways to deliver dynamic content. JavaScript is also heavily used to create animations and more modern microinteractions, but these features must be used judiciously. Research should be used before, during and after development to ensure that the dynamic content you are creating provides an overall benefit to the user experience that outweighs any burden it generates on the performance side.

Making Your Site Work for Everyone

Last, but certainly not least, a research must for 2017 is an evaluation of your website’s accessibility. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that public places provide access for persons with disabilities, and legislation is evolving to mandate that websites offer equal access as well. In recent years, an increasing number of cases have been brought against public-facing websites that do not meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Policies are being developed that would require sites to meet these guidelines beginning in 2018. If you haven’t already begun evaluating the accessibility of your site, now is the time to start.


Organizations of all sizes are careful to consider their budget for website design and development each year. Big wins are often perceived as those that can be seen, such as a sleek new visual design or a brand-new feature intended to provide your audience with an edgy user experience. But investment in these things may not yield the desired result if their value wasn’t carefully weighed against what users need or want out of an evolution of your site.  With several effective analytics tools and research methods available, no matter the size of your budget, whatever investment you make will be well worth it in the end.

If you are interested in learning more about our research process or starting a research project with us, please get in touch.

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