Victorian engraving of three men at a microscope

One of the biggest obstacles to creating a great, compelling website experience is that no-one understands what the user wants from a site. Certainly not the business owner, whose primary goal is to sell products and services. Not the designer, who often desires to create something “cool”. Surprisingly, not even the users, whose goals and motivations may be obscure even to themselves.

How do we create a great website for customers without the time and expense of comparing hundreds of closely tracked changes over weeks and months? By observing people’s actions, rather than what they say.

In previous articles in this series, I’ve introduced a fictional client: Kai Keanu, from Kanaka Fashion, a boutique on the shores of Waikiki. We’ve gone through the need for content, sketches and more, but before pencil is put to paper, or keystrokes to screen, a thorough freelance web developer devotes at least a little time to researching the potential users of the site.

Large companies may have some information on their customers, but a surprising number lack data of any substance. In the case of Kanaka Fashion, we have no information to go on at all, other than monthly sales figures. If you’re a lone freelance web developer, where do you start?

In our case, we’re exceptionally lucky: there’s a café on Kalakaua Avenue directly opposite Kanaka Fashion, and it’s currently 24°C in Waikiki. Who wouldn’t want to spend a day or two sipping mochachinos outside a Hawaiian café while working on a laptop and watching the world go by?

From our time watching Kanaka Fashions we can draw a few observations:

  1. Photograph of bolts of clothA surprising number of customers leave the store wearing their purchases. Several probable explanations occur to you: customers may feel that they now “blend in”, or are simply proud of their purchases, or the clothes may be more suited to the climate. All are very good signs, and should be considered in the body copy and design of the site.
  2. Following a few customers after they leave the store, you discover that they are mostly upper-middle to high-end spenders: they return with their purchases to high-end hotels such as the Royal Hawaiian, or continue to shop at brand fashion stores along Kalakaua Avenue. For such clientele there will be a certain expectation of design refinement that will have to be expressed in the site.
  3. A surprising number of customers arrive at the store looking at their mobile phones. This makes sense, due to the fact that Kanaka Fashions does not yet have a website, and free WiFi leaks from most of the stores along the avenue. A fast, responsive website with easily accessed location information and high search ranking will be very important.
  4. The number of Chinese and Japanese tourists that pass through the store is also surprisingly high: despite Kai’s reservations, having the site content in multiple languages should be strongly considered.
  5. Moving from the café inside the store, observing customer interactions at the point of purchase also yields some useful data. Female customers are far more tactile, exhibiting a high amount of interaction with the fabric, seams and bias of the cloth. This is not surprising in itself, but should be considered in the design of the site. Perhaps more important is the fact that many customers have penetrating questions about the process of production: they want to know where the clothes are made, if the material used is local, and more. Kanaka Fashions prides itself on its adherence to sustainable production practices, and it’s very useful to know that these are also important considerations for customers.

The larger and more intensive the project, the more time should be spent in research. Sometimes this research will be internal: determining the stakeholders in the project, who is responsible for what data, and how this information can best be represented and managed on the site. Sometimes the research is external, as ours has been today. Very often, it is a combination of both.

In this case, the client can only afford a few days, but the time invested has yielded extremely valuable information, making you ready for the next state in the process: writing a site proposal.

Photographs by Ben Weiss; etching courtesy of Biblioteca de la Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias del Trabajo de la Universidad de Sevilla, both licensed under Creative Commons.

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