Improve your site's acquisition and retention

Rebecca Weeks Watson · December 17, 2008 · Short URL:

User experience expert shares tips for pre-launch, audience targeting, optimization, and measurement

 Too often entrepreneurs with a grand idea jump the gun by building and launching a Web site and then assuming traffic and sales will easily flow from there. I’m sure you’ve seen what I’m referring to: a flashy, overwhelmingly complicated site that leaves you wondering what the purpose is and what’s really in it for you.

This is a crucial problem that stems from decision-making without informed research or lack of testing during the product development lifecycle.

But do not fear: user experience-research firms are coming to the rescue. AnswerLab, based in San Francisco, is one such firm that proves interactive design must involve science, not just art, to effectively increase retention and acquisition rates. This fast-growing startup conducts custom user experience research to improve websites, software, and mobile applications. Its quantitative and qualitative research methods throughout the development cycle, from concept to launch to ongoing benchmarking. Clients that have implemented AnswerLab’s insights, including LinkedIn, Honda, Autodesk, and Yahoo!, gained higher revenues because of improved conversion, customer satisfaction, and brand impression.

I asked Amy Buckner, Managing Partner and Founder of AnswerLab, to share her deep knowledge of online usability and design. With over ten years of experience consulting with Fortune 500 companies, she frequently leads educational webinars on topics such as website benchmarking and ROI, intercept research, and Six Sigma and online marketing effectiveness. This year, Buckner and the AnswerLab team were awarded Honda’s ‘Premier Partner Award’ for excellence in user experience research.

Watson: What are some emerging trends in engagement on the Web?

Buckner: AnswerLab’s research team is seeing two exciting trends. The first is a shift from traditional computer-based Web access to mobile device and TV Web access. While walking down the street or riding in a car, we can now access information that was traditionally locked in a computer. And now, Yahoo!’s TV Widgets initiative ( aims to offer web-based content via TV. By partnering with various OEMs, Yahoo! plans to facilitate web browsing while watching your favorite TV show or big sports game. Now more than ever, companies need to think about their internet strategy across channels and platforms.

The second trend we’re seeing involves social networking utilities among non-social networking sites. For example, on the All New Nissan Z website (, users can share videos on any social network via the ‘AddThis’ technology. But, it’s important to remember that not every site needs a Twitter feed—social networking opportunities should fit the site’s content and target audience’s desired ways of engaging.

Watson: From your work and findings, what is a common misperception about online consumers?

Buckner: There are so many! The most common issue is the notion that users will ‘just figure it out.’ Our research shows that consumers don’t just ‘figure out’ poor design. In fact, once users have a bad experience, they don’t try it again. Site designers have to get it right the first time. The best way to ensure this is by usability testing interim versions of a redesign with users prior to launch.

Another common misperception is that consumers like to play around and discover content. This is sometimes true for Generation Y users on entertainment sites. However, when goal-oriented, no one likes a scavenger hunt for information, poor readability, or online interactions that behave in different ways just for the fun-factor. Consumers across generations want to get to information as quickly and directly as possible.

Watson: What are three key things companies should know about their target audience before launching a new website?


Who is coming to your website? Determining the profile of site visitors drives three critical aspects of a web strategy. First, it provides insight as to whether website marketing efforts are sending the intended audiences to the site, so that online marketing plans can be tweaked if necessary. Secondly, discovering what the mental mind-sets are of site visitors informs persona development, a key process for the web design team. Finally, demographic information can influence design decisions (e.g., if an older demographic, the site should have options for increasing font size for improved readability). 

What are they looking for? Many companies continue to optimize the site for what content they have, rather than realigning their content strategy around what customers need. A classic example of this would be automotive manufacturer websites. Consumers consistently want more information on hybrid technology, future vehicles not yet on the market, and comparisons to older model years. However, OEMs continue to plug only current model year content, leaving a large portion of site visitors dissatisfied. When setting a Web strategy, you should first find out what information online visitors are seeking and then align the content strategy to support user needs.

Are they able to find it? Your site may offer the content users need but if organized poorly, it will never be found. In AnswerLab studies, we’ve learned that on average 30 to 40 percent of site visitors are unable to find all the information they’re seeking online.  A common cause: usability issues with the site, ranging from poor navigation, unclear link names, site errors and technical issues, and lack of feedback. Eliminating basic usability issues can increase acquisition and retention efforts dramatically.

Prior to embarking on a redesign, AnswerLab typically recommends starting with an on-site intercept survey to benchmark the current experience and answer the questions above. The findings can then set the strategy for the entire redesign. By running the study again post-redesign, you can validate that redesign efforts had an impact, and gather additional learnings to drive future improvements. This kind of on-going measurement of the site provides additional satisfaction metrics to complete the picture of the site’s performance.

Watson: Describe some of the types of optimization strategies which are known for dramatic results.

Buckner: AnswerLab’s most successful optimization strategy involves iterative usability testing of prototypes throughout the design process; we call this RITE testing (Rapid Iterative Testing Evaluation). This method ensures target consumers can actually use your final product. In this approach, a skilled researcher partners with designers to collect feedback on your designs prior to launch. The researcher instructs 4 to 8 users each day to complete tasks, watches their behavior, and determines what works and what doesn’t work. The iterative nature of the usability testing allows designers to make incremental changes to the prototype–testing, improving, testing, further improving, and validation—so that your final product has the best user experience possible.

But, prior to building anything, you have to confirm you’re building the right thing. AnswerLab’s Concept Testing offers consumer feedback on your idea or proposed approach to a new design to determine if it will fly. This research method answers: Do consumers have a need for your idea? Are they interested in it? Does the proposed approach fit their mental model for how to do it?

Watson: What are some common web design strategies you’re seeing implemented successfully?

Buckner: There are two strategies in web design that AnswerLab has found improve retention and acquisition efforts. The first involves designing your home page to provide 2 to 4 ‘doors’ or ‘primary paths’ for your key user personas. Users can immediately self-select into a path and navigate to lower levels of the site for increased detail. Too many sites offer overwhelming detail, making it difficult for visitors to know where to start. A good example of narrowing down the entry page would be Bank of America’s Retirement Center, which allows users to self-select into savings stages of Starting Out, On Your Way, Nearing Retirement, and the New Retirement. Content on subsequent pages is then targeted based on user need.

Another common strategy builds on the recent trend that ‘Every Page is Your Home Page’. Site visitors no longer use the home page as the only entry way to the site. As search engines continue to surface lower-level pages of sites, users need to be able to understand the value proposition of your site on every page and be able to navigate to other content easily from those lower-level pages. ( and ( have both optimized for users finding deeper content directly from search results and they make it clear to users where they’ve landed and what the site offers.

Watson: Name a website that has a user experience you believe is working well in achieving its goals.

Buckner: AnswerLab researchers are huge fans of ( The site aggregates pricing information from other travel sites in order to find the best deal available online. With Kayak, users can save an enormous amount of time searching across the web. But, even more delighting, is the fare calendar provided when you enter your departure and arrival information. The site plots fares for various departure dates on a monthly calendar, so you can see at a glance the cheapest times of the month to travel, rather than entering various dates over and over again blindly guessing what might be a cheaper time to fly. The user experience on Kayak turns traditional travel online search models inside out, making life easier for all of us.

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