Rate our website? No thanks, I?m a researcher.

Rate our website? No thanks, I?m a researcher.

These surveys are becoming so commonplace (the result of cheap DIY software tools?) that you wonder how website research was previously conducted. Should we be worried by this? Well, setting aside the intrusive nature of survey invitations and the inherent risks of antagonizing the very visitors whose opinions website owners covet, more worrying is the fact that the very purpose for which such surveys are most commonly designed ? to obtain user feedback about a site ? is fundamentally flawed.

Why do I say this? Well, imagine asking visitors leaving an art gallery about their experience. They might tell you about the artists and paintings they particularly liked, they?ll perhaps mention the lighting and architecture, even the coffee shop and toilets, but none of these responses are likely to be particularly insightful.
The only way, in my opinion, to obtain meaningful feedback would be to ask respondents about their reaction to certain paintings or gallery features whilst they actually visit the gallery. So it is with website surveys where, unless you solicit user feedback as visitors click on certain web pages or perform specified tasks, responses tend to middle-of-the-road bland and fail to provide real insight. And whilst art gallery visitors can be selected to provide a representative sample, website surveys are self-selecting, with typical response rates of less than 1%.

So, if not through visitor surveys, how do you find out what users think of your site and of how it compares with those of competitors? Because, of course, research is essential, not only at the pre-launch stage of a new website – for testing concepts and functionality – but equally post-launch. For what is the point of spending tens ? or hundreds – of thousands of pounds on developing and driving traffic to a site if certain features are found to be, at best, frustrating for users or, at worst, actually driving visitors away, never to return?

In my view, the only way to get impartial, objective consumer feedback on a site is to adopt the same approach which banks, retailers & restaurants (to name but three sectors), have employed for years. And that?s Mystery Shopping or, in the case of websites, what we call WebShop. Invite a group of profiled consumers to visit a website, give them a series of tasks to perform as if bona fide visitors, evaluate their experience on a wide range of criteria – and then do the same thing for competitor sites. This approach combines the qualitative features of usability groups (but at a fraction of the cost) with robust, quantitative data ? a typical WebShop survey involves 500+ consumers.

Every dog has its day and, properly used, website visitor surveys have a useful role to play. Let?s just not confuse such surveys with real research.