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Learning from your users

Mark Sherwin Chief Strategy Officer

In this, the second of a six part column contributed by Precedent to PSMG magazine, Mark Sherwin looks at the best way of learning from you users and their needs.

You know that Friday afternoon feeling, when the To do’ list has been completed (or moved to Monday) but there are still a couple of hours left in the day? Do you get the guilty temptation to nosey on Facebook, Twitter etc? Well go right ahead - in fact make this part of your weekly routine! When your boss asks what you are doing, it’s ‘Digital Ethnography’; the art of hanging out with your customers and prospects online.

Many professional service firms obsess about the design of their site without building any real understanding of their users. Firms expend disproportionate energy on their home page, ignoring the fact that only 25% of users who arrive at their site see this, whilst the rest deep-link to content direct from search. In fact, a user may be making decisions about whether to hire you or your competitor without ever reaching your website.

So how do you better acquaint yourself with your users? Monitor the ‘buzz’; at its simplest this means visiting key forums and social communities regularly and seeing what’s being talked about. Ideally, it means structured review. Free tools such as Social Mention, Social Seek , Boardreader and Klout allow you to monitor keywords across a wide range of social networks and measure your current influence, or deploy one of the heavy hitting enterprise tools such as Sentimetrics or Radian6.

Whilst everyone knows that Google Analytics and the like provide headline site statistics, few have spent the time establishing goals and performance indicators that provide valuable insight into how users are interacting with your site. A few days experimenting or some expert help can reap massive rewards.

But don’t rely on quantitative data. Invest in a few bottles of wine; invite a panel of sample users to tell you about their online experience. Ask them what they are looking for on the web, what motivates them to visit a site and what would drive them to taking the all important next step.

Arrange some one-to-one user testing with target users. Avoid being seduced by gadgetry such as eye tracking and test labs. Sitting with a user for half an hour and asking them to guide you through tasks on your website, almost always surfaces big problems and highlights opportunities.

Finally, apply your learning. Not through one massive site redesign (though sometimes it’s needed), but through regular site refinement, experimentation and evaluation. Concentrate on one aspect of your digital offering, learn from your users and apply this to improve their experience. Do this and you will quickly deliver improved business performance and create a real competitive edge.