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Emily ShineJul 2, 2021 12:00:00 AM11 min read

Website Optimization 101: How to Do User Research

In this beginner’s guide to website optimization, we’ll cover what you need to know to get started with basic website analysis, competitive research, audience research, information architecture (IA) research, usability testing, and search data analysis.

The processes, tools, and tips we outline today are the same techniques we do day in and day out for clients to improve user experience, multiply membership bases, and put organizations in the spotlight.

Without further ado, let’s jump right into baseline research, starting with a fruitful website evaluation and discovery process called “heuristic analysis.” The name may sound complex, but it’s really pretty simple.

Baseline Research

Heuristic Analysis

Heuristic analysis is the process of finding hidden opportunities on your website, discovering roadblocks preventing users from doing certain things, and prioritizing your optimization needs.

Here are the goals of heuristic analysis and the questions you should ask yourself on every single page of your website to achieve these goals:

  • Goal #1 - Clarity: Identifying and removing any obstacles from your website or confusing elements and language from the digital journey. Ask yourself:
    • Can users tell within 5 seconds what our organization provides and what our value is?
    • Is it clear what page they’re on, and what the next step in the process is?
    • Are the copy and images (aka the visual hierarchy) helpful?
  • Goal #2 - Relevancy: Users should feel that they're in the right place. Ask yourself:
    • Does the design and language of this page match the messaging where people came from or where they were before getting to this page?
    • Is the information they need to make a decision or reach their goal provided without needing to go to another page?
  • Goal #3 - Seamlessness: Identifying and removing elements that create friction on your website. Use the information you've gathered from other user research such as surveys and interviews to answer questions like:
    • Is there any missing information?
    • Do users have to put in a lot of effort to get the information they need or to perform an action?
    • Is it easy for users to interact with the page or are there usability issues such as site speed, contrast issues, or form problems?
  • Goal #4 - Focused/full of traction: Identifying and removing any distractions or elements that aren't directly helping people achieve their goal. Ask yourself:
    • Do we have unnecessary social sharing calls-to-action?
    • Are there too many options or calls-to-action?
    • Are there unrelated images or popups?

Comparative/Competitive Diagrams

Competitive analysis is an essential part of website optimization. It helps you gain valuable insight into the market; identify your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT analysis) in comparison to your competitors; and develop high-level strategies to up your edge and provide more value to your users.

Check out our recent article 5 Ways to Target Your Website Audience for Better Engagement to get the step-by-step process to do a competitive analysis and build a comparative diagram.

Audience Research

User Experience Surveys

User surveys are flexible user research tools that can produce a combo of multiple-choice responses and open-ended feedback about user attitudes and behaviors.

Surveys can provide you with a wealth of invaluable information that you can use to optimize your website design and content. For example, you can find out how your members describe their position and profession or what prompts them to visit your website.

user surveys

Focus Groups

Focus groups can be a powerful user research practice to discover what users want on your site and what would keep them interested. But by no means should focus groups be your only source of qualitative insight or usability information.

Focus groups are somewhat informal approaches to assess user needs and feelings before and after website optimization. It works by bringing together a small group of six to nine of your web users to discuss the content and structural and design features of your site that they like and don’t like. Focus groups are moderated and typically last about two hours.

The focus-group session should ideally feel open and free-flowing for participants. In reality, the moderator should maintain the focus. It’s best if he or she follows a pre-planned structure and script of specific issues and sets goals for the type of information you want to collect.

Journey maps and interviews are two other powerful audience research tools. You can see the processes to develop a user journey map, conduct an effective user/member interview, and then use this information to refine your audience personas in our recent article 5 Ways to Target Your Website Audience for Better Engagement.

Information Architecture (IA) Research

The easier your site is to navigate in terms of the information hierarchy (e.g. navigation menus and categorizations), web flow, and journey pathways, the better the user experience and the more likely users are to return.

Information Architecture (IA), in a nutshell, is how you structure your website in terms of the design, content, organization, and labeling (e.g. navigation menu). Good IA means every page on your site (and every element within those pages) is findable and usable.

IA research helps you figure out ways to organize your content so that your users can easily interact with your site, achieve what they’re there to do, and find everything they want to know without much effort.

Here are some must-know information architecture tips and tricks:

Card Sorts

Open card sorts dive into the mental states of your users to examine how they understand and categorize information. In this user research technique, users are asked to:

  1. Sort topics into groups that make sense to them.
  2. Give each card pile or grouping a name.

While card sorting is great for evaluating or optimizing IA, interpreting the results can be tricky. Your participants won't all come up with the same categories so you have to approach your analysis by combining the insights with your expertise and other user research.

Tips for Interpreting Card Sorts

  • Use visualization tools to make sense of trends in your card sorts.
  • Dendrograms are one of the best ways to visualize all your card topics as well as clusters of similar categorization (i.e. users who agreed that a particular group of cards belong in the same pile).
  • Areas of disagreement could suggest that you need to rethink the names of categories or provide other links and pathways to an area of content besides just the navigation menu.
  • Areas of similarity indicate that those topics are clearly linked together and are a strong grouping strategy for your navigation menu. Here’s an example of a similarity matrix that shows strong card pairings and potential groupings.

While dendrograms and other visualization tools provide a good lens to inspect the results of card sorts, they don’t give you all the answers. The data is nuanced. It’s your job to make good tradeoff decisions about what categories and which topics you should include on your site to make it findable and usable, and thus, more engaging. 

A good way to achieve this is to look at the results of card sorts in conjunction with themes found in other user research and behavioral analysis approaches.

From there, you can use the results to develop some IA structures to test more in-depth to build a better IA aligned with your users' inherent expectations.

Treejack Testing

Treejack testing is an exercise that ultimately helps you design a more intuitive IA. Whether you’re improving your existing website or starting fresh, treejack testing tells you where and why people get lost.

In a treejack test (or “tree test” for short), users are asked to find the locations in your hierarchical category structure (a.k.a. the tree) where specific tasks (a.k.a. category labels) are completed. Tree tests pair nicely with card sorts as a follow-up tool because they can help identify how your hierarchy performs in a more “real-world” scenario.

tree jack test

Treejacks are also cost- and time-effective because you can run them long before you design your navigation menus or page layouts. If tree tests indicate the IA needs more work, you can simply edit your spreadsheet, for example, without having to redesign or code anything.

However, one small limitation of treejack testing is that the menu users interact with doesn’t have any visual styling, so the browsing experience is hardly like the real deal when users interact with your completed website. Here are tips to overcome this caveat:

  • Supplement tree tests with other user research and behavioral analysis.
  • Focus on clear wins like whether users select the correct top-level navigation.

Cross-Divisional Content Exercises

Cross-Divisional Content Exercises are a series of interactive and collaborative activities designed to break through the divisional silos that often drive content architectures.

At Brightfind, we lead internal stakeholders through an immersive, half-day Cross-Divisional Staff Workshop that takes cross-functional teams through three exercises focused on content priority, content by target audience, and content structure. The format of the workshop is designed to foster organization-wide consensus and buy-in on architecture decisions.

Usability Testing

Task-based usability testing comes into play once you’ve created an initial optimization roadmap for your site, and you’re ready to start testing whether specific tasks or functions of your site that you’ve optimized will be easy-to-use, easy-to-complete, and more engaging for real users.

In short, these user tests show if and how users can complete tasks on your website such as signing up for courses, purchasing a book, or registering for an event.

Baseline Usability Testing

Baseline usability testing gives you an initial look at what works and what doesn’t before you implement your website optimization roadmap on your live site. It also establishes a benchmark for you to compare user experience and engagement on your website over time as well as against your competitors.

baseline usability testing

Wireframe Testing

With wireframe testing, you don’t have to wait until your website optimization plan is fully designed to get feedback and identify key issues in navigation and functionality. Instead, you can get feedback early on to iterate upon, explore multiple user experiences, and/or validate your optimization initiatives.

If your virtual wireframes are a bust, you can simply toss them into the trash and keep on iterating. This ultimately saves time and money during website development

User Acceptance Testing

User Acceptance Testing (UAT) is the last phase of the website optimization process. During UAT, your actual users will test your website.

Post Go-Live

Post go-live website usability allows you to test what your web visitors are doing on individual pages on your site and how they’re doing so. The post go-live optimization process is essential to see how your website is used through the eyes of real users in real context.

Search Data Analysis

Monitoring what users are searching for and how they find your site (and your competitors’ sites) organically using search engines like Google is another way to improve your website optimizations on an ongoing basis.

Search data analysis allows you to discover trends and changes in what your current and future site visitors are interested in. You can then use that information to tailor your content to address topics your user base cares about and use similar language to really speak to them and drive engagement.

Topic Research

Keyword/query research entails using a combination of Google Trends, Google Autosuggest, and to find the topics in your niche and questions that people are either typing into search engines or verbally asking their mobile devices.

You can also use and the “Related Searches” that appear on Google to find related queries that go hand in hand with your primary topics. There is also a range of other keyword exploration tools such as Ahrefs and Moz Explorer but going directly to the source (in this case, Google) provides the most accurate information.

Google Search Console Analysis

Using Google Search Console (GSC) is one of the most effective ways to optimize a current page on your website. It allows you to see what your website already ranks for and boost engagement and traffic.

Simply load up GSC and click the "Open Report" link at the top right to view your website traffic, impressions, keywords your ranking for, and more for each page you want to optimize on your site. Then, find optimization gaps and opportunities for further improvement. You’ll also want to compare your performance with your competitors and topic research.

Next Steps

You can’t just do user research and start making decisions based on the findings you collect without doing any behavioral analysis. The insights you gain from user research need to be supplemented by the information you gather from behavioral analysis tools like Optimizely or by using Google Analytics with Google Tag Manager.

To get tips, tricks, and little-known (yet highly effective) Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager tasks that you can implement right now, check out our article Why Using Google Tag Manager with Google Analytics is Powerful for Organizations.

Or, if you need help with your website optimization, we’d love to hear from you! Tell us about your project here.