How understanding user goals helps design better websites

In retail the saying goes, “the customer is always right”. Whether or not this is always the case, this sentiment often makes its way over to web design. If we treat our clients as customers, are they also “always right”? Possibly. But when web designers treat their client as the customer, they’re in danger of overlooking the end user.

To design truly effective website for clients, the designer must design for the client’s audience and that means understanding the audience’s needs. Often web projects begin with a brief from the client that covers the client’s goals for the website. This is obviously important as the website must support the business goals but it shouldn’t make up the whole brief and direction of the project. Finding out the audience’s needs should take equal prominence as they are the ones who will ultimately choose whether to buy that item, sign up to that service or go to that event. Oh and here’s the thing: often client goals and audience goals are poles apart.

So how can a web designer create a website that works for both the client and their audience? An important stage of the web design process is research. When web designers design websites based only on their client’s brief without conducting their own research, they only understand part of the story. Maybe the client is profit-focussed and the audience is information-focussed. The client expects that the audience will find value with them and spend money, but they haven’t given compelling reasons to the audience to do this. By designing websites based exclusively on the client’s goals, the website has not been designed to meet audience needs, so is likely to be less effective.

So how should a web team go about conducting their own research? In a large agency, this would be done by a UX (User Experience) specialist or a team of UX designers. But small teams or individuals should also being doing this, it might just be done more simply. Sometimes it seems that UX is a luxury that only large agencies can afford, smaller companies can be scared of doing UX if they don’t have a dedicated designer. But there are a number of easy things that any web designer can do to make sure they understand their client’s audience.

Talk to people

To begin to understand the client’s audience, all it really takes is investing time to get to know them. Speaking directly to your client’s audience is the best thing that you can do and there are a number of things you can do get gather information. If your client has a physical location then go there and speak to their customers or visitors. A huge advantage of this, I’ve found, is that the audience is more likely to be honest with you, as a third party, than with your client. I found this whilst researching at a client’s event, the answers I received about the organisation were different to those asked by employees of the organisation. Another advantage is that most of the time, people are pleased to be asked for their opinions, it shows that you and your client care. This makes people feel more involved and less likely to dislike the redesigned website just because it is different.

If your client is only online, there are still ways to get feedback from their audience. Ask your client to send out a survey, speak to their audience on the phone, or ask their audience what they want from the new website over social media.

In additional to speaking to your client’s audience, another group of people to talk to is frontline staff. This might be a sales team, call centre staff, receptionist, visitor services assistants or staff that deal directly with your audience in another way. These people have a deep understanding of your client’s audience. They speak to them directly, field their complaints, hear about successes, failures and everything in between.

For a project I worked on for a local museum, I spent time at the museum speaking to staff. A visitor services member of staff told me that sometimes visitors struggled to find the entrance to the museum, this had happened on multiple occasions. Not being able to find the door didn’t give the visitors an initial positive experience and they complained to the member of staff. After hearing this, a really easy solution was to add a ‘find the door’ section to the visitor information on the site. It included a photo of the entrance and a brief description of how to access the building. Now, it might not seem to be the responsibility of the web designer to address problems like these within the client’s organisation, but improving a visitor’s experience by providing more helpful information on the website means that the visitor has a better experience overall. As a side note, I was in an art gallery a few days after we thought about ‘find the door’ and overheard a visitor complaining that they couldn’t find the entrance. Through audience research, you may uncover something simple, but it could be a common problem that no-one else has noticed yet.

Questions to ask

So now you know who to talk to, what do you ask them? The main outcome you are looking for is finding out what the audience wants to do on the client’s website, the user goals. You can ask open, but not leading, questions such as “What’s the most important thing you want to do when going on the website?” or “What’s the main reason for using the website?” You can also create a survey where you list key pages on the website and ask people to number the pages in order of the most important to them. Ask questions to narrow down the user goals into 2–4 main goals. If a common answer to “What’s the main reason for using the website?” is “To find out when events are on near me” then this would become a main user goal for the website.

In addition to finding out what the user goals are, it is also important to find out problems that the audience has with using the existing website or with the organisation itself. Addressing these problems before the planning and content stages take place means that they can be addressed in the website redesign to help the audience have better user experiences with the new website.

Once the key user goals have been established, they can be mapped to the business goals. We can look at how they work together and if they are very different how we can start to align them. For example if the client’s goal is to get people subscribing to their services, but most users are looking for information before buying, then high pressure sales is not going to be effective for either party. Perhaps instead, the client provides a free trial of the subscription to let their audience try it out. This puts control in the user’s hands and they can choose to subscribe if they find the service useful. In this case both goals are being met and the client is more likely to get the sale.

These are just some simple ways to research your client’s audience, you can do much more detailed research but if you are not primarily a UX designer, then this should be a good start. Further documents can be produced such as user personas and journey maps, I’d recommend doing this, but for a small team having the audience research will be very helpful to the project as it develops.

After the research stage has been done, the design brief should be written by someone in the design team, it should address the client’s initial brief but it’s ok to change the brief (of course you’ll want your client to sign off on your new brief) based on your research. The design brief should include: the client’s business goals; the user goals; the target audience demographic, age, gender, location; look and feel; content requirements; technical requirements; plus anything else relevant to the project.

Having good, solid research means that the design brief that the team works to is based on real user needs and addresses goals for the website from both the client and their audience. Having research can also be really helpful in later stages of the project. When the wireframes are being tested, everyone can keep the user in mind. Does the website layout and structure aid user goals? When the visual design is being discussed, the end user should be central to the consideration. This can make it easier for the client to step into their user’s shoes and see the website from their audience’s perspective and not just their own, meaning that the visual styling is not in just the client’s or designer’s taste. In short, good research can help build more effective websites for your client and their audience and help backup design decisions throughout the process.