The best way to research your next web project

Paul Boag

Before starting your next project take a step back and do the groundwork. In this post we look at how to research your objectives and why its so important.

In my experience many organisations rush into major redesign projects without having a clear idea of where they are going or even what is wrong with their current site. At Headscape we have found that this inevitably leads to scope creep, internal politics and finger-pointing further down the line. That is why we favour a requirements gathering phase at the beginning of projects.

Broadly speaking this falls into 2 phases: a review of the organisation’s current online presence and a discussion with internal stakeholders to establish aims and objectives.

In this post I would like to focus on the first part: the review of the current online presence.

A typical review falls into 4 stages. These are:

  • An expert review .
  • A heuristic review.
  • Competitor analysis.
  • An analytics review.

Although we often carry out all four stages, not all are necessary for every project. For example, it is not possible to do a competitor review when working on an intranet.

That said, let’s look at each of these stages in more detail, starting with the expert review.

An expert review

Typically it falls to me and my 16 years of experience working with the web to write expert reviews. They normally consist of spending a couple of days trawling the website until I know it back to front. As I work through the site I identify various issues. Many are obvious such as poor navigation or overly verbose copy. However, others can be much more subtle such as no clear calls to action or inconsistent labelling.

Once I have reviewed the site in detail I translate my findings into a report. This document does not just identify flaws it also suggests possible solutions. The document is designed to be circulated to internal stakeholders and so contains a large degree of education about web design best practice.

An example of an expert review

The exact content of the expert review will vary. However, typically it include sections on accessibility, usability, design, content, social media etc. It also tends to focus heavily on business objectives, calls for action and how return on investment is going to be measured.

In many ways the expert review is similar to a heuristic review with the exception that it doesn’t just observe, it also makes recommendations.

A heuristic review

A heuristic review uses a standard set of criteria to measure the success or otherwise of a website. As with the expert review these cover areas such as usability, accessibility, design, content and more.

The website is measured against the criteria on a 1 to 3 rating with 1 being poor and 3 being high.

This review provides a more objective analysis of the website than an expert review because the reviewer is using a consistent set of criteria and rating to measure the effectiveness or otherwise of the website. These numerical results also enable us to provide clear visual representations of the strengths and weaknesses of the site. This enables you to see at a glance which areas require additional work.

An example of the visualisation provided in a heuristic review

Another advantage of heuristic reviews is that because they use a consistent set of criteria it is easy to compare one website with another. This can be useful when comparing your site to the competition. However heuristic reviews are time-consuming and so a competitor analysis may often be more appropriate.

A competitor analysis

Depending on the number of competitors an organisation has, a competitive analysis can manifest itself in a number of ways. When there is only one or 2 major competitors in may be appropriate to do a heuristic style review. However, if there are numerous competitors a stripped down version of an expert review is probably more useful.

In this scenario a web design consultant spends a few days looking at the competitors’ websites and identifying their strengths and weaknesses. Where the competitors do something well we learn and improve upon it. Where mistakes have been made, these can be avoided in our own development project.

In certain situations it can also be beneficial to carry out usability testing on the competitors websites. These sites act as a prototype for your own development project and help identify usability issues that can be avoided on your own website.

It is important to stress however that looking solely to the competition for inspiration is a mistake. If you do not look outside of your sector for examples of best practice you are at best going to be following the competition. To truly innovate you need to look further afield for inspiration.

Examples of Higher Education websites all looking the same

An analytics review

The final part of the review process is an analytics review. This requires website analytics (such as Google analytics) to be installed on the existing site. In most cases organisations already have analytics installed, although they are notoriously bad at monitoring them.

An example of the Analytics review

Analytics are incredibly important in any web project. Without them it is impossible to judge whether the web project generates a return on investment. Existing analytics are necessary to provide a baseline against which the redesigned site can be compared. However an analysis of the existing analytics can act as more than a baseline, it also provides a real insight into the behaviour of users.

The exact details of the information available will vary depending on how the analytics are set up. However, using techniques such as advanced segmentation it is possible to tell how various users behave. For example on a law firm website you could ascertain whether users who have viewed attorney biographies were more likely to contact the organisation than a user who only looked at information about the services they offered.

This type of information is obviously invaluable in designing any future website. For example, if you know users are more likely to contact you if they have read an attorney’s bio then the website can be designed to funnel users to these pages.

Is it worth it?

You may be wondering whether all of this research is entirely necessary before beginning to even discuss business objectives, let alone build the website. This is a fair question and the honest answer is that it is not always necessary to complete all of these steps. However, at the least this kind of research will inform a major redesign project. It also has the potential to save a project hundreds of thousands of dollars by revealing that what was originally envisaged is not actually required. Nothing is more dangerous than going down the line of thought which results in a website which does not meet users needs or fulfil the organisation’s objectives.