What’s the Real Goal of Optimized Web Site Visitor Experience?

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And, while we’re on the subject, what’s the real goal of web site visitor experience research? Is it to help optimize functionality, information delivery, or site monetization as a component of communication and marketing? While a case can be made for each, there’s a strong argument in favor of monetization (while not neglecting content and functionality). Beyond merely designing websites so that visitors don’t leave, web sites need to understand what visitors want from the experience, and also provide incentive and tools to take action.

Customer-centric organizations strive to create memorable experiences and distinctive, value-add communication for their stakeholders, and this must extend to web site user experience as well. Like other areas of customer value delivery measurement, capturing the voice of the visitor – letting them speak, and in actionable ways – requires that site user experience now be measured relative to expectations. In other words, the visitor response to site, page, and component design and content needs to be moved from what has been largely qualitative (though there is a tradition of A/B quantitative split testing) and technical to quantitative and emotionally-driven.

Much of web site performance is based on visitor conversion, so testing and research mechanisms must also be as directly tied to financial outcomes, i.e. real ROI, as possible. Unfortunately, though there is evidence of applying KPI’s for site performance, much of it is through traditional web analytics. Few will argue the importance of analytics, but targeted research can greatly augment the insights created by these metrics.

Further, the impact of the site experience on visitor offline behavior is rarely considered. Web visitors and users are holistic beings, and their peer contact activity and influence is typically more offline than online (even among younger consumers). The multiple channels of communication and information receipt must be taken into account. Most corporate web designers and web design companies give less focus to the emotional realities of site visitation and usage, or on the downstream online and offline behavior resulting from user experience; and so they are often challenged to identify the biggest opportunities for creating, or increasing, conversion. They tend to apply basic use testing (UX) approaches, more in common with engineering and conventional wisdom design ‘feel’ than leveraging customer experience research for corporate relationship-building with visitors and customers.

In investigating web content and usability analysis approaches within the industry, what I’ve determined is that many high-tech companies involved in content generation and UX design and enhancement see the evaluating they do (ethnography, think aloud tasks, conceptual/card sorting techniques, observation and live web site testing, etc.) as entirely behavioral rather than mostly functional and mechanical. They also tend to consider their services and techniques as different from, and superior to, market or customer experience research, frequently touting their depth and breadth of design capability rather than their proficiency at assessing the impact of web site behavior.

By comparison, these companies seem to regard research as strictly opinion-based and attitudinal (they often define market research as traditional qualitative, such as focus groups, and usage surveys, brand and advertising awareness studies, concept testing, ideation and the like). But, even in the case of “research” companies within the industry, they don’t really grasp where market and customer research is today, and what cost-effective, time-efficient, and highly actionable contemporary design and analytical techniques can offer. Further, there is little sense or recognition of how research can productively converge with, and enhance, their UX and content development initiatives on behalf of clients.

Unlike the past, where the focus of customer research had been on the functional, passive, reactive, and attitudinal drivers of satisfaction, the customer experience research field and analytical methods we now apply are not esoteric or abstract. They are actively designed to identify what drives downstream behavior, and how that behavior can be optimized. They are both emotionally and functionally, or rationally, driven; and they’re also cost- and time-effective, and highly actionable. This includes ethnographic research and diaries – both long-time customer research techniques – plus development of communication and advocacy behavior personas, and drivers of site experience expressed and unexpressed complaints.

Bottom line, site designers and customer researchers can, jointly and through collaboration and creative conjoining of approaches, provide much more attractive – and profitable – experiences for site visitors.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.

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