Danny Hearn

Why you need user research before hiring a digital agency

When you need a new website, and you’re not sure where to start with a modest budget, hiring a digital agency to get you started can seem like the obvious next step.  They may have a good looking website, offer fixed prices, and have lots of clients similar to you on the roster.  However, with most web and marketing agencies, it’s important to understand their approach to designing, building your website includes and can miss out.

Typical digital agencies design approach

Every digital agency is different.  They have different teams, experiences and markets.  However, there is a common methodology that quite a few agencies still use. A digital agency’s process to design websites is one of the key factors you need to consider when selecting a partner.   Many agencies have adopted a design process that doesn’t involve any user research and instead relies on assumptions and creative expertise (or luck).  This can be for a few reasons; in some cases, it’s due to their exposure and experience and the business model.

Why wouldn’t you conduct user research?

A common perception is that user research takes too long, is expensive, and already knows our customers.   But, knowing your customer means nothing if the design process doesn’t value or articulate customer needs.  The lack of user research means that opinions, assumptions and business needs become the guiding factors that set the direction for a new digital design

The typical agency delivery model is designed to give you the impression of certainty at the start of the project with a clear step by step process that feels quite logical.  But as the project progresses, the assumptions you made at the start will continue to guide the design in ways you may only understand until it’s too late or too costly to change things. 

1. Kick off & discovery

Gathering business requirements, looking at websites, competitors, gathering branding guides, mapping out the core web page templates.

What’s actually happening: Requirements gathered are based on business needs, assumptions and subjective opinions about user needs.

2. Design key webpages

Wireframes and mockups to show how the site will look and be structured, all based on business requirements.

What’s actually happening: A creative process with no validation or understanding of your users. Typically focus is on ‘look and feel’ the homepage and page layouts. Very little attention is paid to the content, or the journeys users will take.

3. Client Feedback

The big 'show and reveal' as the client gives feedback on the first designs. There may be tweaks and discussions about what people feel works well. This usually focuses on the look and feel.

What’s actually happening: Feedback is based on subjective opinions. Often the most senior or most confident voice in the room wins out—no user testing of designs.

4. Web development & content

Signed off designs are coded and developed. You may get another chance for feedback, but most of the site design is ‘locked in’. Any content is either transferred from the old site or created in a word document.

What’s actually happening : The point of no return and the cost of change sky rockets

5. Test for bugs & launch

The site is tested by the agency and sometimes the client for final tweaks and to iron out any bugs before launch.

What’s actually happening: This is the first time you see the website in a browser or mobile device. It’s now that you may start to realise things don’t feel right.

Aren’t user’s needs in my requirements?

Requirements gathered at project kick-off typically might look like it needs to be easy to use or meet our brand guidelines.  While these are valid requirements, they are all your organisations’ goals.  But what about your customer or user goals?  While you may have a deep knowledge of your customers, it’s all too easy to create requirements for a new website from your perspective and your organisation’s needs. I call this inside out thinking. This is a mindset of you, in your organisation, looking out a is your users, imagining what products or services they might want and how they want to use or access them (via your website or service). This is where I believe requirement gathering exercises at project kick-off can fall short.  It puts your new website design at immediate risk of ‘talking to ourselves and not the customers. Inside out thinking grows by developing a new way of looking at why and who you are designing for.  This is an empathetic lens that allows you to see everything through your users’ eyes.  

Developing your ‘outside in lens’

To develop your organisation ‘outside in lens’, you need to listen and deeply understand your users.  This involves conducting both quantitative and qualitative research.  This will generate insights to articulate how your website or service will support user problems and goals.  

A user or customer goal is not to ‘buy your product‘.  Rather, a customer goal (for a shoe company) might be : 

When.. my daughter is going back to school, and her feet have grown, 
I need.. to get a pair of well-fitting shoes that comply with the school code, 
so that.. she can attend school without getting in trouble“. 

Does your organisation have alignment on what your users’ primary goal is? Once you establish and align on an overarching or primary customer/user goal, you can use it as a starting point to understand how people carry this goal out.  You may then discover what is their process when trying to meet this goal.  Also, what’s frustrating about how they carry it out now?  What stages do they go through, and finally, how does your website support this overall goal?  With a set of insights like these, you might be able to imagine how your brief and requirements gathering might look quite different.

Creative luck

A website designed using the ‘certainty first approach’ is based on solutions (ideas) and assumptions of your customers’ needs.  This approach then relies on creative luck to interpret requirements into a great design that your customers will love. So that’s what you’re paying them for.  

To get to a website design your customers love, we first need to ask what a great design is?  Perhaps it’s the ‘look and feel, logos and good branding’? Or perhaps the great photos?  While all of these things impact the customers’ impression and confidence in your brand, which is important, it isn’t likely to be why a customer loves your website. A recent survey by Hubspot shows what customers really want.

Focusing on ‘look and feel’ won’t make a website easy to find what you’re looking for.  This comes from designing website content and navigation that supports your users’ core journeys.  To identify these, you can either enlist a digital agency that will support you to do this, talk to me, or you can do some of this research yourself. This will help develop a stronger brief based on user insight and identified problems (vs ideas and solutions). 

Add the voice of the user to your project brief

Carrying out some of your own research can be an effective way to bring the voice of your user into the brief and creative process.  This is an important activity you can do that will help de-risk and better support your digital partner to design a website for you.

I will write more on how to conduct your own research shortly. If your time-poor, I can support with user research, I also offer design mentoring. If you want to learn more, you may find these links helpful: 

> Why and how to run user tests

> How to conduct user interviews

> Running remote user tests

> How to create a user research survey

> Quantitative vs qualitative research

> Which Research method to use