People often take for granted the notion that content comes bundled with an inherent value. It's an easy mistake to make, especially with so much digital content available instantly with a price tag helpfully affixed for immediate purchase and consumption. All content experiences are not created equal, however, and that experience can make a world of difference in how valuable content is for a user.
Even excellent content can be dragged down by a poor user experience that prevents users from easily finding and engaging with the content they need. With user expectations rising steadily, that failure to engage can translate into poor site ROI and can even have a major impact on a company's brand.
So, what do users want? Well, that depends on who you ask and how you ask them. There are many tools at the disposal of content professionals to answer this question: focus groups, usability studies, surveys, analytics data, and even in-depth ethnographies. According to Louis Rosenfeld, an information architecture consultant and founder of user experience publishing house Rosenfeld Media, one of the most important things to realize is that there may not be a right answer-at least not for very long.
"The typical enterprise tackles big projects in a time-boxed manner," says Rosenfeld. "For example, they're going to buy a new CMS or search engine, or they're going to try to completely redesign their web site or intranet-all at once. And then they'll think they're done, once and for all. Such an approach is very expensive and ill-advised. New enterprise class software packages are very expensive, not just to purchase but to get up and running, to design around, and to get people trained for. Redesigns are similarly expensive. And aside from being expensive, these approaches are pointless, because even if they solve the problem for now, the problem will change."
Rosenfeld notes that there are many factors that could change user experience needs. Perhaps the content itself changes, either through user contribution or by some other manner. Older content can also become stale, requiring an update-and, of course, user needs can change. "What they want today is not what they're going to want in three months, and it's certainly not what they're going to want in three years," says Rosenfeld.
The solution, Rosenfeld says, is to continually revisit the question of user experience, ensuring that the user experience decisions you made previously are still meeting user needs. "You have to tune," he says. "You have to continually tune."
If we accept that user experience is not a question with a single perfect answer, the question then becomes finding the right data to fine-tune the experience over time.
According to David Nickelson, director of digital engagement at Siteworx, that means looking beyond simple traffic analysis and site analytics: It means getting inside users' heads. As someone with a background in behavioral psychology, Nickelson thinks he's well-suited to that particular task.
"By adding subjective research methods on top of [objective data], you're going to get a much better sense of what things are working, what things aren't working, and where-if you've got some really unusual analytics findings-you might be having a problem that you otherwise just wouldn't be able to identify," says Nickelson.
Nickelson uses an example from Siteworx's work with the American Diabetes Association (ADA) to illustrate the point. "We found that there was this whole cluster of content terms related to the disease of diabetes that folks were searching for externally, that were landing them on our site, and then they were doing an on-site search trying to locate those terms," says Nickelson. "And we actually dug down into the terms. They were mentioned very frequently throughout the website, but there actually wasn't detailed content about this specific set of terms in a way that folks could use it."
When users couldn't find the content they expected, they would abandon their search, often moving onto a competing site. "That disappointment would translate into, probably, fewer donations, fewer visits to the website, less desire to participate in some of the events and activities that we engage in, and just an overall negative perception of the organization," says Nickelson. To solve the problem, Siteworx looked into thought processes that users were following while using the site: what things they expected to find, how they expected to find them, why they expected that particular content to be there, and what their reaction was when that content was nowhere to be found.
When Siteworx went back to the ADA's content team, Nickelson says that they were initially unreceptive to making changes to the content because they believed they already knew the best way to meet the users' needs. But by presenting the subjective data the company had gathered from users and showing how it was negatively impacting the site, Siteworx was able to persuade the group to make changes to its content to better serve those users.