Remember elementary school field trips and how they broke up the school week?
Sometimes, it isn't just better programming or a nicer template but understanding where your visitors go or how they use the information that you present on your website. To do this, you need to do some research in the field and actually observe users as they navigate your site and go about their daily working lives. This kind of data collection can be invaluable in improving your website, attracting more visitors, and increasing your customer satisfaction.
Ironically, the tools that you need are pretty simple: just a pad of paper and a pen, and maybe taking a few pictures with your digital smartphone to document things. But more importantly, you have to bring an open mind and actually listen to what your users are saying, and take careful notes.
Field studies aren't for everyone or every situation. They can provide more qualitative insights than quantitative measurements, for example. And they do take time: you have to schedule your visit, make sure your subject is comfortable with your presence, and actually get to their home or office to do the observations. Make sure you get written consent for your activities ahead of time, too. At a recent workshop, user experience expert Danielle Cooley showed some of her notes that she took on a recent field trip for one of her clients. There were pages and pages resulting from a one-hour visit.
Then the hard part begins. "You want to start visualizing your findings, such as with a timeline showing the division between work tasks and distractions for a particular worker." Her sample timeline had 14 work-related activities interspersed among 19 distractions. That can help show you how important it is to have site visitors be able to return to your site and pick up where they left off. Or it could show that your users are busy and have to multitask to the extreme.
Cooley also talks about "collecting artifacts" on her field trips. These are the bits and pieces of the average work life and cubicle dweller. For example (as shown in the photo above), one mainframe application was so complex that a user created her own "cheat sheet" filled with the arcane command-line syntax that she used as a reference whenever she needed to run the application. Another user documented the various home office colleagues that he spoke to over the course of several years, with each person's information put in separate folders for ready reference. Think of this as going on an archeological dig and documenting how people do their jobs, so your developers can understand how to do theirs better.
Pulling the Pieces Together
By documenting how people do their jobs, developers can do their jobs even better.
Part of this artifact collection is to document worst practices, or user design mis-cues, or to demonstrate to your own management how to improve particular site issues or information flows.
So take some time to visit your users out in the field, and see what you can learn from them to improve your website.
— David Strom is a world-known expert on networking and communications technologies. He has worked extensively in the IT end-user computing industry and has managed editorial operations for trade publications in the network computing, electronics components, computer enthusiast, reseller channel, and security markets.