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Understanding Your Audience – The Benefits of User Research

We believe that to design a truly effective digital product you have to first understand as much as you can about who you are designing it for. By putting the end user at the centre of the design process and engaging in research to build up a picture of their habits and expectations we stand the best chance of creating something that will feel intuitive and addresses their needs.

There are lots of approaches to gathering valuable user insights, each with their own strengths. The ones we most frequently turn to are Stakeholder Interviews, Focus Groups, Usability Testing, Surveys and Analytics Reviews. If you can include just a few of these in your research mix then your project will be all the better for it.

Analytics Reviews

Where possible we like to start our user research with a analytics review. It’s easy to arrange and it usually surfaces a bunch of questions to take forward and put to real people later on in the discovery phase of a project.

Google Analytics and similar digital analytics tools can be a gold mine of information about your website’s audience, from the types of devices they are using to their patterns of usage. What we want to do is try and build up a picture of particular user groups and see if we can identify patterns in their interactions with a website. For example do mobile users favour particular types of content or are there spikes in usage at certain times during the day that might suggest a particular context of use?

Lies, damn lies and statistics? Yes, we do need to keep in mind that single data points, taken in isolation could be misleading. If you find yourself having to apply too much ‘interpretation’ to the data then you may need to look to other research methods for answers. Big picture stuff like ‘What percentage of visitors to my site use mobile devices’ or ‘What is the language breakdown’ are simple pieces of information that can directly inform the design process. As long as you have sufficient weight of numbers on the factors you are exploring you can be reasonably sure that your conclusions are statistically meaningful.

Today’s website analytics packages offer a dizzying array of data-points to explore, but a good starting-point for most first time reviews is to look at your most popular pages, traffic sources, devices, locations, times of day and weekly or seasonal trends. If your website includes a search function and that data is recorded this can also yield some fantastically useful insights about what users are coming to your site for.


A survey is useful for gathering all sorts of user research information, from building a broad demographic picture of your audience to gaining very specific behavioural insights. Like your analytics data you can extract quantitative findings, but you can also start to dig beneath the numbers and capture qualitative information too.

A good survey starts with thinking about who you want to target and the key topics you would like to explore. Initially don’t worry about getting your questions into a survey-ready form, just capture the ideas and arrange them into a logical order. If you have a small pool of potential respondents it’s a good idea to keep your survey relatively short (no more than 3 minutes) and your questions simple, both of which will help maximise the responses and ensure you have some statistically meaningful data to work with. You can always re-survey later with additional or follow-up questions.

Think carefully about the best format for each question. Star ratings, multiple-choice and open text responses are the most commonly used and in general it’s good to have a bit of a mixture to keep things interesting for your respondents. In general ‘how often do you?’ or ‘how strongly you do you agree with?’ questions are the easiest for participants to answer, compared to free text responses. The information will also be easier for you to interpret.

Surveys can be a great starting point if you don’t really know who your audience are. This might be the first piece of user research you’re carrying out and all you know is that a respondent is a user of your website. In this instance you’ll want to try and capture some broad demographic data so that you can start building up a picture of your audience. Information gathered in surveys can help to begin shaping your user personas and touch on topics that you can dig into more deeply in your face-to-face research.

Be sure to always start by thanking participants for their time, tell them how long the survey is likely to take and how you intend to use the information. Surveys can also be a great recruiting pool for interview and focus group participants so at the end it’s a good idea to ask if a respondent would be willing to take part in further research.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are particularly effective for quickly getting a broad understanding of your audience. By hearing them speak first hand about their needs and expectations from your website you can start building a picture of the content and functionality that are really going to resonate with them.

The format is pretty simple. Gather together around 5-10 willing participants in a room, ply them with tea and biscuits and try to capture as many insights as possible to help you build a better product. Your participants don’t have to be existing users of your site, just be representative of at least one of the audience groups you are trying to reach.

While it’s a good to come to these sessions with a set of questions, don’t try to force too much structure on proceedings. Sometimes the most interesting insights come when you let a conversation run its own course for a bit. Pick your moment to drop in a new topic and be prepared to revisit each from a different angle in case you don’t get enough detail first time round.

Keeping things engaging for participants is key to getting the most out of them and a varied approach to questioning usually helps here. Mixing straight-forward ‘Would you prefer feature X or Y?’ type questions with more open, ‘What would make you do Y? or ‘How would you approach task Z’ will help you capture a range of actionable results and behavioural-type insights, whilst also keeping things interesting for your participants. Having some visual interest can certainly help too so if you have an existing website or design mockups of something new that you’d like to get feedback on try to include that.

This is your opportunity to fill in the gaps left by any existing analytics and survey data and also validate any conclusions already drawn. The group format also makes it possible to instantly validate one person’s experience with the rest of the participants and quickly identify what might be wider audience habits versus individual user traits.

Although it might not always be practical we have found that often the most productive focus group sessions are those where the participants don’t know each other, removing pre-existing group dynamics from the equation. A bit like a judge assessing a jury it is also a good idea to try and identify any potential bias in an individual participant. If they reflect a particular interest group, that can be useful, but understanding this bias is an import part of interpreting their input.

If you are planning on running one of these sessions solo then you’ll almost certainly need to record it as trying to guide the discussion and make notes can be a bit of a challenge over the course of a 1-2 hour session. A two person team with one in the role of facilitator and the other as note-taker is usually a pretty effective combination and allows for insights to be captured more discretely rather than participants feel like you are noting down their every word.

Stakeholder Interviews

Interviews are great for really getting down into the detail with an individual user. We often use them to engage with key stakeholders from within our clients’ organisations right at the start of a project, but they work equally well for opening a dialogue with your target audience too.

One-to-one you have the opportunity to gain a much more detailed picture of the individual. Adding that additional background information can really help to understand their motivations and expectations when they come to use your product. This extra personal detail also makes your interviewees the perfect subjects for your website User Personas.

In many ways what works for a focus group will work for an interview, but it can be worth being a bit more structured with your questions, especially if this is a process you plan to repeat with multiple interviewees and compare answers. If your participants will give you permission, recording these interviews is a good idea. This leaves you free to take fewer notes and concentrate more on the conversation. You can then transcribe the interview at a later date or even replay it to other members of your development team so they can get the benefit of hearing the same insights first hand.

Effective interviewing is a skill and it is as much about how you ask the questions as what you ask. Ensuring your subjects feel comfortable and taking care not to lead them into giving the answers you want to hear (or they think you want to hear) are probably the main foundations of an effective interviewing style. Don’t be afraid to leave a question hanging or prompt for more detail, if you demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in what your subject has to say they will likely be forthcoming. And if they want to go off on a bit of a tangent with their answers then let them, often this is when you discover the little gems of information you didn’t even know you were looking for.

Usability Testing

1-to-1 usability testing is great for generating very specific and actionable feedback. By observing real users performing common site tasks you can quickly identify areas of friction or confusion within a design. But you don’t have to wait until you have your own product developed before testing. By sitting some of your target audience down with a competitor’s site (or one that shares some similar functionality) you can start to build up a wider picture of their habits and expectations. This is a great opportunity not just to avoid making the same usability mistakes someone else has, but also to identify some areas where you can make some real steps forward by turning your testers’ “I wish I could” statements into reality.

When it comes to your own website you also don’t necessarily have to worry about testing with a working beta site. We’ve had great success testing flat design mockups and even wireframes. The earlier on in the process you can get feedback often the easier it is to make adjustments and repeat testing as you move from concept to launch-ready product will allow you to re-validate those early insights.

A pool of at least 3 participants (from each of your target user groups) per round of testing would be ideal, but even if you can only do one test you are likely to gather some useful ideas about how your digital product could be improved. You might also consider combining standard usability testing with Emotional Response and Recall tests to build up a wider user experience picture.

Go forth and research!

Most digital products, be they websites, apps or emails are created with a particular audience in mind. Why leave it to chance that they will like what you’re building and that your assumptions about their needs and expectations of your product are correct? By investing some time, however limited, in User Research throughout the development process you can make more informed decisions and find better design solutions first time round.

Nick Barron

Written by

Nick Barron

In his role as UX Director Nick ensures that everything we do reflects a clear understanding of our clients’ aims as well the expectations of their audiences.