Imagine that you recently redesigned your company website and are looking at your site analytics. You notice visitors are spending much more time on one of your revamped pages. A small, satisfied smile crosses your face and you feel a sense of relief. Thanks to your efforts, people must be more engaged and are happily spending more time on your site.
You actually don’t know what’s going on with that page. The metric without context isn’t informative.
People could be happy with the page or they could be frustrated and spending way too long trying to find what they need.
Time on site, website traffic, types of visitors, exit rates, and other metrics tell you what is happening on your website. This is valuable behavioral information. But why is it happening?
Numbers leave out context. Focus on the people behind the numbers to get the full story of what’s going on.
Enter qualitative research
Qualitative research examines what your numbers mean. It is used to gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations for behaviors. It can offer in-depth perspective on how people operate, and any related historical, cultural, social, or other influences that affect decisions.
Analytics show you what is happening, qualitative research aims to determine why it is happening. Empathy, the key to great user experience, increases as we learn about those we serve. Understanding the reasons behind behavior – the why – helps you put yourself in your audience’s shoes. This leads to smarter decisions about content.Analytics show WHAT is happening, qualitative research aims to determine the WHY says @melissa_egg Click To Tweet
In learning user motivations and problems, you can discover pains and opportunities that analytics can’t show. For example, you can see where and how your website is frustrating users or what content they hope for on a certain web page.
Content Marketers: Your WHAT Doesn’t Matter if Your WHY Is Lacking
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Approaches to consider
Many marketers are familiar with focus groups, which can be helpful but have limited utility. You don’t always get honest opinions in a group nor do people accurately describe what they do or would do. Why not consider these other research approaches to gain important – even game-changing – insights.
Usability testing examines a way to see how easy it is to use a website, app, or other software. A person completes tasks while being observed in person or on video by a researcher. The session is usually followed up with interview questions.
When I conducted usability tests on a yoga studio website, I learned what annoyed users – the verbose text, the home page carousel, and the lack of clarity about location of events. I also made a surprising discovery: Nearly all users felt intimidated by the images of people doing yoga on the website, saying things like, “These people don’t look like me.”
Conduct usability testing to:
- Find out if people can do common tasks successfully.
- Uncover any frustration or confusion related to your language or design.
- Discover how satisfied people are with your website or app.
In-the-field interviews create a more casual atmosphere than formal interviews. They are conducted with people in their natural environments – typically home, work, or school. Going to their turf increases their comfort and offers you context you might otherwise miss.
Sometimes the best interviews are done on the go. “How did you get him to tell you that?” asked a university communications director after a student divulged personal information about his concerns prior to enrolling. The insights came only after we’d walked around campus for 30 minutes, peppering him with lighter questions. We confirmed similar concerns in other interviews, which in turn informed our message architecture on the website redesign.
Noticing your research participants’ environment also provides insights to the challenges they face such as noise and interruptions. The atmosphere that people are in often influences how they use your website or product.
Use in-the-field interviews to:
- Increase the comfort level of the research participants.
- Understand the environmental challenges they encounter.
- Discover needs that people are unable to articulate.
Direct feedback gives people a chance to provide information to you directly – something too few websites offer. An easy and common way to receive feedback is via a well-designed contact-us form. However, you can also ask for direct feedback at the end of a piece of content. For example, the Usability.gov website provides articles and downloadable templates related to user experience; then at the end of a page, it asks: “Was this page helpful?” with “yes” and “no” options provided. Whichever option you choose, you are also asked to check off relevant explanations or provide your own answer. This is one simple way to get qualitative information – at the perfect time – to supplement your website analytics.
Use direct feedback to:
- Give people a way to tell you about a problem or need.
- Ask for feedback at the moment of satisfaction or frustration.
- Show you are concerned about meeting user needs.
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A successful combination
Combine both quantitative data and qualitative data to inform your content decisions. Don’t make decisions based solely on quantitative data, as you may misinterpret what it means. Alternatively, qualitative data reflects patterns but can be skewed by a small group. Consider a customer who continually posts her case for a change on your Facebook page; one squeaky wheel should not drive your decisions.
Looking at qualitative and quantitative data together can set you on the right track for happy customers.
Want to learn more about conducting impactful research? Check out these resources:
Case study – bananas for research
“All roads lead back to talking with customers,” explains Gregg Bernstein, research manager at MailChimp, the email marketing service. Based in Atlanta, MailChimp’s growing team of qualitative researchers gathers insights to improve its products and accompanying content.All roads lead back to talking with customers says @greggcorp via @cmicontent Click To Tweet
In September 2015, the company launched its MailChimp Pro feature that lets customers dive deep with data analytics. It can test up to eight variations of an email campaign, track delivery in real time, and stop campaigns if you discover a typo. Qualitative user research played an important role in content development related to this new feature.
“First, we had to determine who was likely to make the purchase decision, was it the email designer or the CMO,” Bernstein shared. “Then it was crucial that we described the product in the language that person would use.”
His team interviewed potential MailChimp Pro customers in the customers’ offices and on the phone. They listened to the language customers used and learned about the work environment. Researchers also examined how competitors described themselves in industry publications.
The insights gained from the research influenced the positioning of the new feature, but findings also affected how-to articles and other help-support documentation.
“We have to understand our customers and their context to make things easier for them,” explained Carrie Heffner, a MailChimp researcher with a content strategy background. “For example, it’s hard to know how to group the content for a help site without knowing the mental model of the people served.”
With both qualitative and quantitative research as guides, MailChimp has more than 9 million customers. The company continuously strives for improved user experience by understanding the why behind the numbers.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Chief Content Officer