Learning to listen: A designer gets schooled by his users

And learns that experience propels content

You’ve probably heard the adage “content is king”. It’s a way of saying the platform is less important than the content it holds. As a website designer charged with creating unique online experiences, allow me to disagree.

While conceding that content brings in users, how it is experienced can determine its impact. That’s something I am constantly thinking about: How to make the experience propel the content.

Luckily we have some help, from users themselves. Thanks to some exciting new analytic tools we’re able to “watch” how content performs on our platforms in almost real time.

Google Analytics is the most ubiquitous starting place for gathering user information. It’s a good tool, but has some limits. It’s great at representing overall user flow, but doesn’t show us what a user does when they’re on a page. To truly understand how people experience websites, you have to do more than play a numbers game.

While there are many tools to see the digital world through users’ eyes, one of our favorites is Hotjar. With this tool, we see exactly where users click, how far down a page they scroll and the movement of their mouse cursor when they’re idly reading. We can even record video of individual user sessions and watch their screens as they use our sites.

It sounds a bit voyeuristic, but it’s completely anonymous and, at the end of the day, allows us to make it easier for users to find exactly what they want.

Recently, I combed through a handful of our highest-traffic websites to research the modern user and study their behaviors. Here’s what I found:

Carousels are dead. What about hero images?
Plenty of research has proven that carousels are ineffective in surfacing content. My look at user behavior confirmed that conclusion. Although users may interact with a first slide, only about one percent of them will click on a second or third. I’ll go so far as to say the entire “hero area” — a prominently featured photo or graphic at the top of many sites — may also need to be reconsidered. Users have become conditioned to quickly digest (or even skip over) this section, looking farther down the page for content that is relevant to them. They don’t want to be told what is most important. Rather, they often come to a site with a goal in mind and get to that information on their own. We call visitors with this behavior “self-guided users.”

Don’t overload the primary navigation.
There is a tendency to load the main navigation (nav) with all content options. I get it. Internal stakeholders are all demanding exposure for favorite topics and including another nav is an easy way to appease their demands. In theory this exposes more content, but in practice our self-guided users hate it. In the sites I studied, the magic number of nav items seems to be four.

One website I reviewed has six items in the main nav, and users almost never click on ANY of them. Instead, we see people prefer the “utility” nav at the top right of the page — yes that small, simply designed space that often seems like an afterthought.

Speaking of afterthoughts, guess where users love to go? The footer. Believe it or not, dropping down to the footer is one the most common ways of navigating a site, and there is no limit on how many items you can squeeze in there. As long as the footer is well organized, it’s a very valuable way to get around.

Users need to know what you do.
The ubiquitous “About Us” page is quite often the second most visited. Years of being directed to a specific page for this kind of information has conditioned us all to look for it.. To me, this is an unnecessary step that underpins the value of the homepage, it’s time to break the “About Us’ habit. The homepage should tell the client’s story, quickly and simply. Consider our self-guided user: If we force them to divert from their goal in order to become educated on “Who we are,” then we’re wasting their time and challenging their attention span.

Store front browsing (scroll, scroll, scroll).
Hotjar’s “heat maps,” show how far users scroll down a webpage. They are fun to watch and what they reveal will probably challenge your expectation and make you think differently about where the most valuable real estate is on a page.

We’re consistently seeing that users scroll all or most of the way down a page. They’re also more likely to scroll than not. At any given point on a page, we can see the actual percentage of users who have reached that far. Generally, they are able to find relevant content before reaching the footer, but it is always surprising to me how much they are willing to tolerate. I liken it to window-shopping. If we package content into unique “store fronts” users can pick and choose from, many will gladly scroll until they find what they need. We call these users “exploratory users.”

The Bottom Line
I came out of school with a degree in web design and a strong point of view on user experience. Ten years later user behavior has changed, and I’ve come to rely on tools like Hotjar to inform my design sensibilities based on user’s shifting behavior.

Content is king. But effective monarchs need allies. Strategically organizing and presenting content to get a users attention is the ally this king needs. Designing for the web requires iteration, testing, creating, and re-testing. Sometimes the best lessons are from observing users on live environments interact with actual content.

It’s a systematic process that leads to progressive enhancement. We simply need to keep our minds open to the lessons users are sharing to find success.