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Users tell you what is written between the lines of data

Inspired by my colleague Elisabeth Reisinger and her article “Know your audience” and because I am currently conducting user research interviews for my master thesis, I decided to reflect on how content strategists can profit from users’ insight in order to optimise their content.

In my master’s degree study program “Content Strategy” at FH JOANNEUM, I learned a lot about how content strategists operate: How you collect data and metrics, do audits, and gain analyses and reports of your content’s performance. And yeah, nothing wrong with that, because numbers are super important, but I never was a numbers person and believe that one key factor is missing: the emotions. When talking to real users and listening to them, their problems and issues, you can find out way more than what is written between the lines of data.

Currently, I am writing my master thesis and the main focus is on user research. I want to optimise the university’s website in order to make it more user-friendly and accessible. The navigation should be easy and understandable and issues should be reduced. Over the past two years, I conducted various analyses: a content audit, a competitive audit, a card sorting a new information architecture and so on. Now it’s finally time to talk to the users themselves and to listen, to what they want and need.

Know your audience. And I don’t mean make assumptions about your audience. I mean go out and spend time with them, talk to them, get their feedback. Do polls, do surveys, do smart research, and know who they are. … and serve them!

— Kristina Halvorson

What’s user research?

User research focuses on understanding user behaviours, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies. Or, as user experience professional Steve Krug says in this book: ​​Don’t let the users think. A user should be able to “get it” — what it is and how to use it — without expending any effort thinking about it. As an example, as a user, I should never have to devote a millisecond of thought to whether things are clickable — or not. 

So basically what he is saying: the content should be understandable and make common sense. This is important because the users’ attention span is very short, therefore if they get annoyed, they probably leave the site and you will lose a potential user or customer. So, how can you conduct the best possible user research for your website or content? Here are my learnings.

Usability tests can help to find issues on the website. Photo: UX Indonesia / Unsplash

Finding suitable and motivated participants

After laying out my business problem and research question for my thesis it was clear, that I needed the users’ help to achieve my goals and objectives. I decided to conduct user interviews and do usability tests with them using the Thinking Aloud method from Steve Krug. I had everything planned, but what was missing were the participants. I was afraid if I will find enough people who want to participate and if I eventually found them if their answers and feedback will be qualitative and usable. Turns out I was worried over nothing: many people reached out to me and offered their help. They were interested in helping because they already experienced some navigation and usability issues with the website.

But I know, it isn’t always like this. One learning was to understand which users you want to address and where you can find them. My main target group is very young, Millenials and Gen Z, students and scholars, and people between 16 and 30 years. First I send out an email, with zero response. Then I thought about how I can reach them better. All I did was post one Instagram story on the company’s account and shortly explain who were looking for, why and how they can help. Within minutes my DM’s were exploding and people generously offered their help and support. Another ​​incentive could be to offer a (financial) compensation or benefit. 

Keeping users engaged and valuing their feedback

After sorting out my DMs, I narrowed the interviews down to 18 participants. I explained to them what we will do and how it will happen. Although all users were super friendly and motivated, I was worried still about the outcome. And again: my expectations were exceeded and I was blown away by their feedback. One learning I had during my interviews was to make people feel safe and appreciated. You want something from them and they are offering their help, so value what they have to say and thank them. 

My test users had various backgrounds, some more technological, others came from the healthcare or environment sectors, some had never done a usability test others had done dozens of surveys. The pool of participants was diverse, and still, they had one thing in common: They were all applicants, students or employees of FH JOANNEUM and identified themselves with the university. They already experienced issues on the website and felt like this was the moment they could be heard. This was their opportunity to change something in order to optimise it for future users.

Listening to and valuing users’ feedback is crucial. Photo: UX Indonesia / Unsplash

Guiding through the process without influencing

One of the biggest challenges for me as the interviewer was, to stick to my guidelines sheet and ask the right questions, but not influence the users or their opinion. Sometimes it can be hard to not push and urge your users to say the one thing you want to hear. Their perception is unique and everybody expressed themselves differently. At the beginning of the interview, I always told them: There is no right or wrong, I will try to be as nonjudgmental as possible. 

Knowing they couldn’t say anything wrong, gave them confidence and they trusted me. From there on the usability testing was running smooth and the biggest challenge was to keep my mouth shut and only guide and not influence them.

Evaluating feedback and actually listening

Although the users were so different, they, fortunately, recognised similar issues and sometimes even suggest the same solutions. This made my user research successful as I was able to evaluate the issues and optimise them based on their feedback.

After conducting already over 20 user research interviews in my life, I can say I really enjoy them and I gain the biggest and most valuable insights when I am talking and listening to users. In my opinion, more companies should conduct user researches which not only exist of data, metrics, personas or analyses but of real words, emotions and struggles.


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