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What questions do website users ask?

“Build a customer-focussed website.” It’s not very hard to say, is it? But it’s very easy to get bogged down in business requirements and performance measures, and if you lose sight of what your users are trying to achieve, then you’re not going to get very much out of your website, no matter how shiny the spinny bits are.

Most of the websites I am involved in are very much service-based, and framing a website around top tasks is great for getting at the specific questions that the majority of people will be asking on your site – like, when are my bins due? or, how do I join the library?

When we are building a core set of principles for our sites, we like to take this to a more fundamental level. What is everyone asking? What are the common questions among all users?

Content Questions

As part of this process for liverpool.gov.uk we came up with four basic questions that we think almost everyone is either consciously or sub-consciously asking, when they look at content or a page on the site.

  1. Is this the right bit of content for me?
  2. Where is the right bit of content for me?
  3. What is this?
  4. How do I do the thing?

Originally, when we were defining these questions, we focused on the content elements of the site, but now we use them to drive all elements of the site including the design and development.

Each one can be expanded on in many directions, and it is great to sit down with any element of your site and look at how it answers these four questions.

Is this the right page for me?

The user is looking for something on your site and they have somehow arrived on a page. This is the first thing they want to know: is this where I need to be?

You can look at a number of elements of a page or site that help to answer this question. Page titles, heading structures, and calls to action all help a user to work out whether they are in the right place.

There are also many levels at which the question is being asked.  At one level the user might be trying to establish who owns the site – here, branding plays a big part. They might be looking for something very specific, and so content becomes much more important to them.

Where is the right bit of content for me?

Even with the best navigation or snake-oil SEO, users will still sometimes end up at places on your website that are not the right place for them. When this happens we need to guide them to the right place as quickly and painlessly as we can.

Some areas to look at here include context and root-level navigation.

We might assume the page we are on is in some way related to what the user wants and navigation therefore could be optimised for the user to get to other parts of the site that are likely to help them. There is a lot to navigation and how people use it – it’s something I’ve touched on before, but the rabbit hole goes a long way down.

What is this?

This is where we start giving the user what they have come to the site for. People who have come for information are expecting us to give it to them.

It’s important to remember that it’s the user asking this question – not the organisation. It’s not uncommon, especially for large organisations – public or private – to forget about the user at this point, and tell them all about how they work, and what their favourite ISO standards are (I quite like ISO 3103).

How do I do the thing?

Many of your users will have come to your website to do something, and that something can take many forms.

Where possible it’s always good to let the user do the thing right there and then, but quite often the main website will just be the starting point for the user to achieve what they have come to do. It might hand them off to a specific system, tell them what forms they need to fill in or just who they need to speak to.

There are a lot of areas to focus on here: the design of forms, the content that wraps a process or just how well something is signposted all play a significant role in the success of the site in helping the user do what they came to do.

More questions?

If you sit down and think about your websites, you can no doubt think of five or six more questions to add to the list. This is by no means a definitive list or the highest priority set of questions for your website. It is a core set of principles that we try to keep in our minds while we do anything for the site.

For us, these questions form part of our ethos for the site. The ethos defines what we believe about the site’s different elements, and how we strive to give people what they want – but that’s another post.

For now, you should consider the questions your users ask when they come to any part of your site, and think about how every part of your site helps or hinders them in finding the answers to those questions.