Bringing Research Home
Any designer who has created a personal portfolio site knows that your toughest client is always yourself. Recently, we have felt particularly sympathetic to the plight of designing for yourself because we have been taking an introspective look at our own site and messaging.
We wanted to understand how potential clients perceive and evaluate Viget in their search for an agency partner and the role that our website plays in shaping that impression. We wanted to see our brand and our site through the lens of a potential client, a person getting a first introduction to Viget. To do that, we applied the same research methods we employ for client projects to our own questions.
Creating a Setting for Direct Feedback
Having conversations with prospective and current clients is something we do all the time. Typically though, those conversations are initiated by the business development team or account managers, people who are heavily involved in fostering client relationships. For this effort, though, we thought that user researchers were well-suited to elicit candid, frank feedback and construct a fuller picture of the client experience.
We wanted to reach out to people who have experience searching for and finding a digital agency like Viget. So, we contacted some of our current and past clients, but we also contacted people who had considered Viget, but ultimately chose another route. We hoped that this would give us a balanced view of how clients made their decision.
We asked our participants to tell us the story of how they chose an agency partner. We hoped to learn more about how they thought about their needs, what factors they considered most important, and what information they used to find and assess agencies. We also wanted some focused feedback about our website and the role, if any, that it played in their decision.
Recalling the Client Journey
Our interviews were structured in two parts: one portion to discover more about the client journey and their impression of Viget, and another portion to walk through our own website. Before we even looked at the website, we asked our participants to recall what they were initially looking for and what specific things they remembered standing out, good or bad. If they didn't remember anything, we asked what they thought they would have been looking for.
These interview questions framed the conversation and gave context to the subsequent tour of the site by putting them back into that headspace rather than having them simply react to a website.
Touring Our Own Site
As we toured the site we continued to ask framing questions to maintain that context: What pages do you remember looking at? What information would you have been looking for? We paid careful attention to how quickly they scanned the pages, what key pieces of information they expected to find, what they noticed, and what struck a cord. But, we also noted what information they didn’t see or interact with, what they missed. Here’s a bit of what we learned from walking through the site.
- Much of our precious content gets scanned over very quickly.
While this shouldn't have been surprising, it’s difficult to get a sense for the pace and rhythm people use to navigate without watching someone interact directly with your site. It can be humbling, but it is a good way to reset your focus. Do you really need this content or that button when it will be quickly passed over?
As our participants talked through their thinking, we learned about what specific pieces of information they were scanning for. Maybe they were looking for demonstration of development abilities or how we might approach building a mobile app. As they perused a case study, they pointed out what images or words resonated most with them and which pieces of information seemed relevant to their search.
- Without providing a clear context, the audience will make their own assumptions.
When we asked our participants to choose a case study that felt relevant to their project needs, we realized that they struggled to understand what each project was about when we only provided a client name, project title, and image as clues.
Browsing a list of our case studies often left our participants with an incomplete impression of the work we do. They assumed that we focus on campaign or marketing sites. In truth, there were a wide variety of projects represented from hardware to apps, but the imagery and lack of context concealed that fact. Navigation elements, like filters or metadata for example, are just as important in shaping your potential client’s impression of your breadth of capabilities as the work itself. Without those guideposts, people may wander down a path that isn’t especially relevant or may navigate based on visceral reactions to the content, as opposed to your work on the project.
- Featured projects may reflect on you in unexpected ways.
The top of our home page consists of a large hero and two additional case studies featuring some of our latest projects. While we were conducting our interviews, we were featuring a project we worked on for ESPN that depicted Lebron James’ career trajectory. Across the board, our participants reacted very strongly to Lebron James. It turns out Lebron James may be even more polarizing than election coverage (which was also featured on the home page in our work for POLITICO). That visceral reaction to the content, as opposed to the work, was a good reminder that features must be carefully framed to avoid alienating a potential client or becoming pigeonholed into specific type of work.
- A website is an introduction.
Our interviews also shaped our ideas about the role the website plays in the larger client journey. The website gives us an opportunity to introduce ourselves and form a key first impression in the minds of our potential clients. But, the interaction likely won’t be a long one. We know that the website is just a small step in the entire client journey, a place where people go to quickly get a sense of who you are and what type of work you do. So as we work through some of the other challenges, we are also taking a step back to keep the website in perspective.
As our website grows and changes, we continue to examine how our original designs fit our current work and audience. User research provides us the direct feedback necessary to make those evaluations. Research won’t tell you what to do, but it can illuminate problems and give you a fuller understanding of your audience and their behaviors. It can help you prioritize decisions. So, while we know that we still have some things to consider, we can at least make decisions with a renewed awareness of our audience. We value the insights we have gained during this process, and we plan to keep on conducting research as we continue strategizing, designing, and maintaining our site.