Understanding User Needs

The holy grail of content strategy and user experience design is accurately and elegantly fulfilling the needs of the users who visit a website or interact with an application. But gathering those user needs—and separating them from user wants, which can be very different—is one of the biggest challenges we face.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Many of us have had the experience of conducting user forums or stakeholder interviews with the sincere intent of gathering specific needs that we can turn into effective content and experiences. Too often, we come away with a “wishlist” instead of clarity on user needs.

The problem with creating wishlists, rather than actual user needs, is that wishlists can be wishful thinking and not grounded in research or even reality. Expectations get created that those wishes are now project requirements. Jumping straight to a tactic like this bypasses the opportunity to truly evaluate user needs against business goals and project or budget constraints and come up with a sustainable and successful plan.

The real danger is when a wishlist requirement has implications for tool selection (such as a CMS) or ongoing management beyond the budget or capabilities of the team who will ultimately own and maintain the site. “Shiny object” features that require a lot of management and don’t directly deliver for the users waste time and money for the immediate project build and for the longer term, too.  

So, How Can We Get What We Need?

One technique commonly used for capturing user needs is the persona. In theory, personas are created based on actual user research, and therefore can be relied upon to help vet content and user experience plans. Gerry McGovern recently wrote, however, that personas are “Mythical people, fictional people, perfect customers—who didn’t exist except in the minds of the web teams.”

Gerry argues instead for real interaction with real customers: “Developing a culture of the customer is vital to our success. How to do that? First, we must develop a genuine will and desire to regularly interact with our customers. We need to hire people who are highly empathic and curious about people. We need less content people, less design people, less technology people and more people people.”

Certainly, there’s no substitute for direct interaction with users, and the topic of empathy has been the focus of a number of articles and even conferences for the past couple of years. But the reality is that for many businesses, the web site needs to serve multiple audiences, scattered around the globe. It can be difficult to find the resources to interact directly with them on a regular basis.

Testing, 1-2-3

If you are able to do in-person user research, doing observed-behavior studies such as usability testing in a lab or contextual interviews in a user’s own environment are valuable tools. If you aren’t resourced to do direct user research, consider doing a pop-up survey on your site or using a remote-testing tool.

There are a number of free or low-cost easy-to-use tools out there to help test aspects of your site structure and content with real users. For example, Treejack, from Optimal Workshop, allows you to remotely test your information architecture with users. Also from Optimal Workshop, OptimalSort allows online card sorting to test the way your users would expect content or products to be organized. The Nielsen Norman Group has an excellent article on tools and how to select one and set it up for maximum effectiveness.

A new tool to the scene is Intercom, which promises to help you track who your customers are and what they’re doing, in essence creating real-life personas. Other ways to track what your users are actually doing include monitoring your analytics data for entrance, exits, time on page, and traffic flow. Some of the more robust and comprehensive site platforms like Adobe’s Target and Sitecore’s upcoming 8.0 release help provide user segmentation from the actual user behaviors on the site.

Listen and Learn

Your customer feedback is also a valuable source of information—if users are contacting your support team with similar questions, there is a clear opportunity to create content to answer those. Users often take their issues to social media as well as their goals and interests. You can learn a lot about your users by spending time interacting with them in these channels, reading what they post, the questions they ask and reviewing the analytics to understand what topics they find most engaging. Search logs are another way to see what people are looking for and finding—or failing to find—on your site.

Adapting to User Needs

However you gather user information, it’s important to make sure that your content processes are agile enough to adapt. Create a positive feedback loop, where user needs are driving regular review and update of content and user experience to make sure that your users are getting what they really need and taking the actions that your business really needs. Remember, though, that the work is never really done—user needs change over time, businesses goals shift, and you need to be able to evolve with both in real time.