Getting Started with User Research

How do we know if our website is actually working the way we want it to?  Web analytics data can tell us part of the story, but we need user feedback to help us understand the full picture. Otherwise, we know what people clicked on, but we don’t know why.

Fortunately, getting user feedback doesn’t have to be expensive. There are “do it yourself” methods that you can use right now.


You can set up a quick survey (just a few general questions) on your website to get a sense of your user’s feelings, likes and dislikes, and pain points.  It’s a great way to get a broad view from many different perspectives.

Here are the questions I would suggest as a starting point:

  1. What brought you to our website today?
  2. Were you able to do what you hoped to do?
  3. What did you enjoy about your experience?
  4. What can we do to make the website better?

Note question #2 doesn’t make a whole lot of sense launched on your homepage, because, on your homepage, many users haven’t had a chance to interact with the site yet.  Question #2 works best as part of an exit survey.   If you decide to not ask question #2, then you can ask users to take the survey earlier in their visit, potentially on the homepage, or on the 2nd page of their visit.  You can place a call to action in the lower right or left of the screen, or in a right rail promo.  These methods are less disruptive than a modal or popup but can still get users’ attention if designed properly.


A user interview is a conversation with a user so you can hear about their experience with your website.   If you’re new to user interviews, here are some quick tips for getting started:

  1. Practice with a couple of co-workers and friends so you can get your style and approach smoothed out a bit, before you start working with real users.
  2. Keep it conversational and natural.  A “semi-structured” interview approach can help with this.   It’s a hybrid between just going through a list of questions, and having an open-ended conversation.  So, do you have a list of questions?  Yes.  Do you read down the list like a drill sergeant?  No.  Keep  it natural.  The interviewee is doing most of the talking of course, but your goal is to keep them talking, and to listen, and to probe to really understand what they’re trying to say.
  3. See if you can get the user to talk about a specific thing that happened in the past.  When a user generalizes and says “it’s hard to find things,” that’s interesting and you can explore those impressions with them.   But when somebody tells you “last week I tried to search for the conference agenda, and I typed in “xyz” and the only result I got was “abc,”  that can be especially useful because it’s so specific and real.
  4. Have the website available for you and the participant.  Whether you’re conducting the interview in-person or over the phone, make sure the website is available for both of you to reference as you talk.   Trying to  discuss the website based on memory alone won’t get you very far at all.  If you’re doing the interview over the phone, have a Webex or GoTo Meeting set up so you can both look at the website together.

Usability Testing

This is the single most important thing you can do. Surveys and interviews give you useful information, sure. But actually sitting down with a user while they try and navigate your website lets you see not just what people say, but what they actually do.   There is absolutely no substitute for usability testing.

How many users should you test with?   It depends on how many usability issues you want to capture.   To consistently capture more than 90% of the issues, you should test with 10-15 participants.  To capture between 55-85% of issues, test with 5 participants. But even just one or two participants is significantly better than no participants at all.  Watching just one person try to use your site can flag an obvious usability issue that you and your team simply overlooked before.

Like interviewing, it takes a little practice to get good at usability testing – but it’s not rocket science. There are DIY approaches that can be invaluable.

Here are some tips for getting started:

  1. Narrow your focus. Chances are your website is way too big and complex to usability test all of it (that’s a big part of why the surveys and interviews are valuable, they fill in some of those gaps).  Usability testing is an investment of time and effort, even on a small, DIY scale. Decide what questions you need to answer.    Orient everything you do around that.
  2. Think of one important user goal or activity that you’d like to understand better.  Good candidates are e-commerce checkout, event registration, navigation menus, and other activities that are critical to the success of your website.
  3. Before the user gets started, ask your participant to talk to you as they use the site, and explain their thought process. This is called the “think aloud” technique.  You may want to demonstrate this behavior so the user knows exactly what you mean.
  4. Appear neutral during the test.  It can be tempting to smile or laugh or interact with the participant as you would in a normal social situation, but this should be done with caution.  If you’re too friendly, the user may be influenced by your opinions of him or the interface.  I try to project a calm and approachable demeanor, but keep a lid on my feelings about the what the participant is doing, or what’s happening on the screen.
  5. Do a pilot test.  Set up a time with a friend or a co-worker to go through a dry run.  This helps you make sure the task is worded clearly, and that the site functionality is up and running, not buggy, etc.
  6. Record the test.  If possible, run a WebEx or other screen capture during the test.  If you can record audio of the user’s commentary, even better.  There may be interesting details that will not be captured in your notes.
  7. Watch and learn! 

Once you’ve gone through this little experiment, you may just catch the usability testing bug.   If so, your next steps might be….

  1. Think about ways you can expand and apply this type of research to your website.  Other tasks? Who should you test with?
  2. Keep learning. Refine your techniques and your approach to the level where you are most comfortable.

If you are just going for a basic, DIY approach, Steve Krug, who wrote the usability classic, Don’t Make Me Think, also has a great book on guerrilla usability testing and it’s a relatively quick read.

rocketsurgerycover Rocket Surgery Made Easy by Steve Krug

If you decide that you want to take your usability testing skills to the “next level,” here is another great book that can introduce you to more formal techniques and advanced theories around usability testing.

handbook of usability testing cover Handbook of Usability Testing by Jeffrey Rubin, Dana Chisnell, and Jared Spool

Final Thoughts

User research can range from guerrilla methods to large,formal studies. Good news: even the most basic, informal methods are better than nothing. Astronomically better!  I hope that some of these ideas encourage you to give user research a shot.

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Kelly Browning

About Kelly Browning

Kelly is Matrix Group's Director of Strategy — constructing critical links between new clients and their site users. She enjoys learning about new clients and helping them formulate strategies for most effectively connecting with their users on the web. Before coming to Matrix Group, she was a project manager for Threespot Media. Outside of work, she likes to paint and attend antique auctions.