“Without big data analytics, companies are blind and deaf, wandering out onto the Web like deer on a freeway”, explains Geoffrey Moore, American organisational theorist.
He is right: analytics tools are the eyes and ears of an online business. But is the quantitative data most companies currently gather sufficient to see and hear what users are truly experiencing on a website? In a study entitled "Website Analytics for E-Commerce" published by Heystaks in December 2014, the majority of respondents said they were frustrated about the way information was processed in their analytics tool. They said it was difficult to identify important details among the huge volume of data and to derive concrete actions. For most web controllers it seems to be virtually impossible to retrieve relevant information from the mass of quantitative data. How can they fill in the missing data blanks to receive actionable results?
Explaining the “whys” behind users´ actions
To obtain a complete picture of the user experience, it helps to look at how web analytic tools collect user data. Web shops are a perfect example: Not every person visiting a shop intends to make a purchase. Some people simply visit sites to check what’s on offer. Although their brief presence will be reflected in the web analytics tool as clickstreams, dwell time and page impressions, their track then disappears into the depths of the World Wide Web. Not only does web analytics data fail to reflect users´ surf intentions and goals, those wishing to analyse visitors´ preferences also usually rely on quantitative A/B tests. While these comparative tests indicate which sites or design variants perform better, they do not provide answers to the question of why users prefer one option to the other. Analytics only answer the “whats” behind user behaviour, and do not clarify “why” visitors decide to buy or abandon a site. The missing link is using additional quantitative data and qualitative user statements gained from user research.
Giving web analytics a voice
If analytics data provided qualitative user feedback, it would be less challenging to identify users´ intentions and preferences. Only users themselves can explain what motivated them to browse on a site and know if they were able to accomplish what they set out to do. This is where user research comes in: while surfing on a site, genuine visitors are invited to give feedback via a layer. When taking part in a so-called Voice of the Customer (VoC) study they are asked to answer questions related to their surf intentions and whether they accomplished their surf goals or not. This way, online businesses are able to segment visitors into different profiles like information seekers or “lookers” and potential buyers or “bookers”.
Validating the buying process
Another advantage of segmenting users that way is that only if a web shop can identify how many visitors come to the shop with the intention to buy, it is possible to determine future conversion rates more accurately. Most “bookers” come to a shop to search, buy, and leave. If they are ready to spend their hard earned cash, a flawed check out process is the most likely thing keeping them from buying. While high bounce rates in the web analytics tool indicate that there is a problem, task-based user studies can shed light on why people abandon the purchase. To test the buying experience, participants are usually asked to run through the process on their own PC, smartphone or tablet. By asking them to find a specific product, place it in the shopping basket, and try checking out it is possible to single out usability issues and purchasing barriers. The advantage of these online usability tests is obvious: due to the high number of participants, the results can be easily scaled and extrapolated for all potential buyers.
A further advantage of user studies over web analytics is that competitors’ websites can be analysed as well. Benchmark studies show how the usability and user experience of a site has a positive or negative effect on the brand image. As studies merely require the URL of the relevant website, participants can also perform tasks on competitors’ sites. This UX (User Experience) benchmarking can help identify weak points in a website’s usability, user experience, and associated brand perception in comparison with competitors’ sites.
One notifies, the other one investigates
When comparing web analytics and user research data it is not a question of using one or the other. Both approaches work best when combined. While analytics data are like an alarm system indicating a potential issue on a page, user studies are the special operations unit researching the cause and providing quantitative and qualitative insights on optimising user experiences.
By Arthur Moan, UK Managing Director of UserZoom.
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