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The Content Corner: Determining Your User’s Needs

I recently wrapped up a series of user interviews as part of a review of our judiciary-wide intranet in order to provide better digital services to our customers (and yes, our internal users are our customers, not just the general public). As I prepare to delve back into determining user and content needs for a more varied audience and wider platform, I thought it might be helpful to share lessons learned during my recent effort and any new strategies that might be helpful for anyone getting ready to jump into their users’ brains.

From my personal experience, I have always learned tons of valuable information regardless of how many users interviewed or analytics I’ve reviewed.

Many Answers Are Already There
Trend analysis

One of the first critical things that I fight to remember during any discovery process or content review is that there is a ton of user feedback already available. You just have to remember to go get it.

Usage Statistics

For the main site that I support, we are constantly finding new ways to sift through and increase the amount of information we can gain from our users. It has to go far deeper than simple pageviews, but in many situations, agencies do seem to stop there. Pageviews tell the beginning of the story, but many of our sites are far more complicated than simply a page. What are the users really trying to find on the page?

My agency has worked on adding code to anchor links to better determine exactly what specific FAQs are the most popular. We leverage that data to either flesh out the FAQs further or raise their visibility. And we continually have to ask the question of how best to interpret our less popular content: do users need it and can’t find it, or do they not need it because we are handling their needs more fully elsewhere? Be sure you don’t fall victim to interpreting your user data to fit assumptions or to see what you want to; be as objective as possible.

One final lesson learned about usage data: make sure the code on the page is properly implemented to capture everything you want and need. Also, be sure that you review any special tweaks to your code that your site-specific architecture may require. Javascript queries or the trend for long-scroll single pages may need to be considered.

Search Terms

You can consider search terms a subset of your usage statistics, but I called them out here because they sometimes are overlooked. These are great to find out why people are coming to your site in the first place, what they are looking for and many times what they can’t find.

I’ve learned that many people handle finding information online in different ways. You generally have two types:

  • Those who navigate or explore organically to find things.
  • Those who go directly to a search box and rarely click or navigate.

When interpreting search results, you have to take these two user paths into consideration, but also understand that if you are seeing the same search term frequently, it could merit a review of your navigation or how you provide the content related to that term.

Customer Service/Help Desk

Supporting a program that has dedicated help desk staff was a relatively new experience for me, so I initially didn’t realize what an invaluable resource for user data and content needs they can be. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense because these individuals are essentially carrying out random user interviews every day either via email or phone (maybe chat one day?).

If there is something that is hard to find or a process on your site is not working correctly or is confusing to a user, the second person after the user to know about it will most likely be a member of your help desk staff. If your site has the benefit of having this level of regular customer interaction, I strongly recommend taking advantage of it. More and more I have my help desk manager involved in everything from blog posts to user interface design.

Talk to your Users
Social Business Meeting

There are tons of resources already available about usability on DigitalGov and some of the challenges particular to federal government and the public sector. All the information regarding the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) is invaluable in my experience.

I also relied heavily on the available resources on user interviews as a great reference and a way to get up to speed quickly. A personal suggestion when planning to do user interviews is to respect the subject’s time by being as prepared as possible. I really made it a point to probably over-thank my subjects, and by being very prepared and efficient during our time together, it reflected my respect for their time.

During my most recent set of user interviews, I conducted all of them via phone due to time and travel budget constraints. In-person interviews, especially when getting user impressions on navigation or ability to find content, are most effective. Due to the needs of my upcoming phase of discovery, I am definitely planning on in-person interviews, especially to study user reactions to content displayed on a mobile device and how they swipe or tap to complete certain tasks. The visual cues that you can pick up by watching a user interact with your content or site can many times tell you far more than an entire set of interview questions.

User Stories?

One final point revolves around something that I have only started integrating into my content review process and that is the creation of user stories as an end product of your research. User stories are traditionally associated with agile software development and the UK Government Digital Service even states that they only work in agile teams. Here is where I need to disagree or where I completely misread the intention of their content. I have found the syntax used by user stories very helpful and a better way to think about content. User stories are centered on the user (shocking, I know!) and help a content creator keep users mind if they think of their content from the “I am a (blank), I want to do (blank) in order to (blank)” perspective. It is a perfect, compact and easy to remember mnemonic to keep content efficient.

My suggestion is to not discount user stories and their place within the review process and the improvements that the research will inform. You don’t have to be doing agile software development or agile at all to use user stories to help you create better content and improve your current content.

One point worth making is that the most important thing to do is to talk to your users. The methods, strategies, and format of these discussions can vary. I again recommend using the DigitalGov resources to help get you started, but have that conversation with as many varied users as possible. Remember that the only bad conversation with your users is the one that never happens.

You’ve just finished reading the latest article from our Monday column, The Content Corner. This column focuses on helping solve the main content issues facing federal digital professionals, including producing enough content and making that content engaging.

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