Putting your visitors at the heart of your website

When it comes to running a successful website, listening to your visitors will pay dividends. Stephen Blyth explains

Listening to your customers

When it comes to running a successful website, listening to your visitors will pay dividends. Stephen Blyth explains.

Making regular tweaks based on feedback from your website’s visitors is a well-established practice in the professional web world.

There are some simple techniques you can use to learn what people are doing or trying to do on your website. Two approaches are introduced in this article.

These DIY approaches can be carried out by anyone with an ounce of web experience.  If you do have a budget, you can easily find usability or user experience professionals ready to accept a fee.

After listening to people, the types of changes you may find necessary include: clarifying language, adding more content or taking stuff away, tweaks to navigation, and ironing out bugs you didn’t know about.

Website statistics

Everyone running a website can access data about what people are doing when they visit.

The most basic types of statistics are collected using AWStats, Webalizer or similar packages. These are typically available your web hosting control panel. The information collected is fairly basic with records of date, time and page visited. There are few sorting options, and the figures tend to be inflated with the inclusion of non-human visitors, such as robots, crawlers, etc.

More advanced data presented through free programmes like Google Analytics and Yahoo! Web Analytics excludes visits by robots and their ilk. To use these services requires an account with Google or Yahoo and adding some extra code to your website.

Alongside the basic figures Google Analytics show where people are visiting from, visit patterns (returning visits, visit duration, etc), and can include sophisticated measures. The latter includes showing where on a pages visitors click, completion of a sequence of actions you specify (called conversions) and visitor flow over multiple pages. Exporting, sharing and comparing statistics is very easy.

Analysis of web statistics can help you:

  • Learn what is popular content, and make this easier to find
  • Find time-wasting extra steps
  • See where in a process do visitors get snagged, eg signing up using a form, or making a donation
  • Identify any problems with the site, eg search for 404 page errors
  • Review keywords to see if you are being found by search engines.

The steps you could take to address these things are often related to content, titles, positioning of widgets and other small tweaks, rather than deeper structural changes.  

The raw figures cannot explain why things are as they are. You need to hear directly from ‘real’ visitors for that.

User testing

Often people working on a website overlook obvious errors or bugs due to over-familiarity. A fresh perspective from a few typical website visitors can help you spot things you miss.

A low cost and easy way to hear from visitors is running user tests. To do this you need 3-5 people willing to spend approximately 30 minutes working through a series of common tasks on your website while you watch. As the testers undertake the tasks, a facilitator asks them to speak aloud and records their comments.

User tests can happen at any point in a website’s lifecycle. It’s particular useful before an upgrade or prior to release of a refreshed website. No more than five people are needed, often three is enough.

The most obvious problems or misunderstandings can be quickly identified. The types of things you find are usually easy to fix. Labels, location of buttons and wording are easy wins.

This type of testing is just one form of usability testing. There are a variety of online ways to solicit user feedback, plus more advanced methods for determining website structure (eg card sorting), and identifying audience needs (eg personas, user research, or task analysis).

Steve Krug, A well-known advocate for user testing, challenges website owners not to make him think! In his user testing guide Krug recommends running short usability tests each month. Choose a particular area of your website and grab people in the corridor. Run a few short tests, then act on the findings. 

Taking steps to give your website’s audience want they need will lead to more than higher satisfaction with your organisation’s website. They’ll also be more likely to support and engagement in what your organisation stands for.

Resource list

Image via sxc.hu

About Stephen Blyth

Stephen is a freelance project manager, writer and advisor from New Zealand. His specialty is working on web-based projects for organisations striving for environmental or social change and other good causes. Since 2007 Stephen has been helping people set up websites, choose software, run online meetings and use technology to achieve their organisations goals. The label technology steward comes closest to describing how he works offering advice, training and project management support.

Stephen understands how community groups work so he knows how to stay within tight budgets within organisations where people are the focus (not the tools). Prior to becoming self-employed he worked for government agencies for over a decade in community engagement, funding and capability building roles. In his spare time he tills the soil, climb trees with his two young children and squeeze in some volunteering with Wellington ICT. He writes about all this stuff at: www.commonknowledge.net.nz.