Most UX professionals don’t start their careers in UX or user research (myself included).

It’s one of the things I love most about the UX industry—we come from all different professional backgrounds. We’re analysts, designers, writers, developers, digital marketers, psychologists, researchers and more converging to make the digital world more human-centered.

For the highly analytical among you, “human-centered design” probably sounds overly emotional. It’s not. Human-centered design epitomizes rationality as much as it does empathy, balancing qualitative data with quantitative data to help uncover what people really want rather than relying solely on what people say they want.

What I’m getting at is for all the “feelings” around UX design, it’s actually a field full of data lovers. From workshops and interviews to surveys and user testing, UXers want data to tell the story, to reveal the patterns people don’t even know they’re following. The more data we have, the more compelling story we’re able to tell.

But this emphasis on primary data can be crippling. Recently, I’ve noticed myself and other UX professionals obsessing over primary data—user interviews, usability tests, etc. In reality, this type of data isn’t always accessible, and without it UX design can start to feel overly emotional. So lately, I’ve been reminding myself that data is available in more areas than just primary user research.

When you can’t conduct primary user research (interviews, user testing, quantitative primary studies, etc.), here are four areas to prioritize to better understand your users’ needs and the design problems you’ll face.

(Hint: we almost always look at this even when we can conduct primary research!)

1. Analytics

The subtitle of “analytics” is intentionally vague. For most companies, this is simply going to mean Google Analytics or Adobe or the like. But don’t forget other digital metrics you may have access to. Have you set up heatmaps? Do you have a social listening or sharing tool that aggregates data? Maybe you have a free Moz account you set up a while back and haven’t really looked at much. All of these different platforms have a set of user data. And many tools offer free trials or free versions.

In examining social and SEO metrics, you can start to understand users’ intent for coming to your site. And in looking at web analytics, you can start to hone in on user flows once they get there. Often UX teams underestimate this data, which to some degree is fair. Out-of-context analytics, social, and SEO data can be a bit unhelpful. It’s in segmentation that the user story starts to emerge.

Social Metrics

For social data, I’ve had analysts send me reports that just aggregate all the social posts that drove traffic to the site. This really isn’t all that helpful—those social posts are generally links to blog articles, not core site pages. I’m not trying to devalue blog content, but we have to take a step back from the traffic metrics and analyze the user intent.

Take this example: Element Three’s third most-visited landing page is a blog article about where to get free fonts. And it has been for 2+ years (maybe longer!). Does that mean we need to talk about fonts more on our work and services projects? Well, we can attribute exactly zero customers to this blog post, so I’d argue no.

While that story is an oversimplification of the logic behind evaluating social and blogs, it’s indicative of how social metrics should be impacting user experience. Don’t just look at the totals. Segment. Dig into your marketing automation platform.

  • What actions do users who first come via social take on the site?
  • Do they come back?
  • If so, what content do they come back to?

Use those social metrics as a way to narrow down which content you dig into further.

SEO Metrics

SEO metrics are pretty similar to social metrics in that, at face value, they aren’t all that insightful. But similarly, if you segment the data and look at it from different angles, you’ll learn more about how your users are trying to experience your industry.

Take a look at the keywords your competitors rank for on their products and services pages that you don’t. This can reveal a gaping hole in your UX content strategy. And though you can’t directly see which keywords drive traffic where, you can use tools like SEMRush to see which pages on your site rank for which keywords. The higher you rank, the more helpful Google finds your content.

While you can’t build a site only to please a search engine, Google’s algorithm does look at user metrics like bounce rate, time on site, and pages per visit. If you don’t rank well, your competitors are likely beating you at offering a user experience that people find natural. SEO data helps you uncover these gaps (and we’ll talk about how you can fill them in the Competitive Audits section below).

Website Analytics

While website analytics platforms tend to have the most data, don’t rely too heavily on this information. These metrics can only show the impact of the current user stories you’re telling. That’s fine, if you’re killing it. But most people who want to redefine their user experience probably don’t believe they are killing it. And even positive metrics can be misleading.

For example, we have a handful of clients in niche industries. Almost all of them have low bounce rates. So this must mean they’ve nailed the user experience, right? Not always. Many of them have positive metrics in analytics but post-purchase surveys reveal users thought their sites were difficult to navigate or their content wasn’t helpful. Website analytics can have false positives because an easy experience isn’t an end user’s only motivation for staying on your site.

Still, I’m not suggesting you discount web analytics entirely—often these metrics are some of the only known data we have. But get beyond the surface when looking at this information.

For instance, rather than looking at predefined behavior flow in Google Analytics, I like to use the Page Analytics Chrome Extension, so I can see where users are clicking as they explore the site.

Page Analytics Chrome Extension

The plugin gives click percentages, so by using this data and moving through the site, I can build common user paths that go deeper than GA’s out-of-the-box report. I can also segment by user type to understand the path of persona A vs. persona B. It’s a lot of manual work, but it really helps the UX strategist get into the users’ shoes, and it’s backed by data!

2. Competitive Audits

Competitive audits are actually what got me into UX.

Several years ago, as SEO was making its shift from blackhat to user-centric tactics, many of my SEO peers were relying almost entirely on quantitative competitive audits (think, “how many pages on topic X does my competitor have”).

As far as SEO goes, this data was helpful. But I kept asking myself, why would we create content just for a search engine? Search engines aren’t the ones buying from us! And slowly, as Google released more and more hints that they too were trying to optimize for users and not their algorithm, something clicked for me: search engines were trying to get companies to improve user experience.

So I convinced my boss to let me take a different approach, and rather than scraping sites and collecting metrics, I manually audited search competitors to understand the phrases they used, the order of the displayed content, the media they used, the way they structured their navigation, and so on. My findings were intriguing. The client we were working for didn’t have the wrong content. They simply didn’t have it organized correctly. We reordered their pages, and voila, they saw a 20% increase in organic traffic and a steep decrease in bounce rate.

Years later, I realize what I was doing wasn’t really “SEO.” It was UX. And to this day, I still lean on this type of research.

Rather than focusing specifically on search competitors, today I look to industry leaders. I do this for two reasons:

  1. Big brands have big budgets, which means they likely invest in user research and testing, and
  2. They innately get more traffic by having well-known brands. This means they have more data to guide their UX decisions.

Here’s what I recommend auditing:

  • Navigation: Record the taxonomy and information architecture, the main navigation and dropdown links, secondary navigation and eyebrow navigation.
  • Page flow: Group similar types of content (Homepage, Product Pages, Category Pages, etc.) and record the order, depth, imagery, interactivity, etc.
  • CTAs: From the navigation, footer, and key pages, record how competitors are trying to drive leads.

Competitive Site Audit

Once you’ve recorded this qualitative information for each competitor, analyze your findings and identify patterns. This step focuses on finding the quantitative data that’s hidden within the qualitative data.

Combining what you know about your customers and business goals, use these competitive findings to help construct potential user stories and user flows for your website.

3. Internal Interviews

As much as it pains me to say this, you can build a proper, high-performing website without conducting user interviews. I honestly don’t like it. There’s nothing like the insights you get from real users. But still, I understand that companies have budgets and competing priorities, and user interviews aren’t always an option.

Internal interviews are always an option (and if they aren’t, your company might have bigger problems). These are different from stakeholder interviews, where you’re looking to identify goals and requirements upfront.

Internal interviews are conducted with employees who are communicating on the front lines with customers, and the questions look a lot more like a user interview. Ask things like:

  • What questions do customers have most frequently?
  • Do customers ever mention the website? And if so, what content do they refer to or what questions do they have about it?
  • What are the triggers that lead to a customer purchasing?

Will the answers you get from salespeople and customer support be biased? Sure. Which is why you have to interview multiple people and, when possible, talk to multiple people in the same role. And just like the competitive audits, pull out the patterns. Looking for similarities in the responses you get will help you uncover what’s true about users.

It’s always possible internal politics or taxonomies will turn up across interviews. It’s an imperfect process. Strive to keep an open mind and be aware of those internal leanings and try to remove those sentiments from your strategy and recommendations.

4. Secondary Research

Lastly, and I’ll keep this one short and sweet, USE SECONDARY RESEARCH. Lots of companies (Google, Forrester, and Nielsen Norman Group, to name a few) publish lots of UX and buyer’s journey data. And here’s the thing: while secondary to you, their research is conducted with real users. Though not specific to your company, these studies are a great check and balance to the types of research I’ve listed above.

Ultimately, the only way to come close to removing 100% of risk in UX design is to invest in primary user research and user testing. But being intentional and looking to the data that’s available to you can seriously reduce that risk. The thing is, people aren’t perfect, and they aren’t identical. So human-centered design isn’t going to be perfect either.

Make an effort to break through your biases and understand your users’ goals to define user stories unique to your brand, and you’ll find success in improving your site’s experience.

h

Halie Vining

At Element Three, Halie is renowned for her ability to truly understand an audience. It comes as no surprise that her particular area of expertise is content and UX strategy – she knows how to go beyond the numerical data and connect with consumers on a personal level. “Marketing is simple: Find the right balance between what you want to say and what your customers want to hear. So many people lean too far in either direction, but really, great campaigns hit the mark for customers AND businesses.”