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User engagement - exploring what we need and want

‘User engagement’ is a continuous voyage of discovery to find out what users need and want when they interact with technology.

User engagement - exploring what we need and want

User engagement is an important task based on finding common insights and discovering things you hadn’t thought of.

Many users know what they don’t want, but find it harder to express what they do want. Most often people will tell you what their current needs are but have difficulty envisaging the future. A large part of the user engagement process is therefore to discover these needs and wants.

What it involves

User engagement involves a mixture of quantitative and qualitative analysis. Quantitative analysis offers useful patterns and is generally more scalable and easier to conduct.

But it’s in the qualitative analysis that you’ll find the true insights and pick up on the behaviours and nuances that will truly influence the way in which you approach the design process.

User engagement also involves contextual study and ethnography. These provide information including who the person is, what their routines are in daily life and the sorts of sites they visit. For example, the person could be a mother whose smartphone provides her with her only form of internet access throughout her day. She needs sites that are mobile-friendly, and information on the go.

Web Strategist April Hague-Smith says the value of ethnography is that it’s as much about the person and their behaviour in the offline world as it is about the technology. “These broader insights give you an understanding of the user’s world and an appreciation of how you can use technology to both meet their needs and to challenge them.”

Why usability is not an end in itself

While ‘user engagement’ is essential to creating what the customer needs, April says it’s a common misconception that ‘user experience’ is just a case of making a site usable.

“It can be misleading to take a standpoint that insists on usability at the expense of all else. You can create a really usable system that doesn’t achieve its goals. Your online shop may be immensely usable and yet no one’s buying because you’ve created the wrong experience.

“Some sites are engaging precisely because they push the boundaries and change how people see common conventions – not because they slavishly follow established usability rules to the letter. We are constantly encountering new ways and means of engaging with search interfaces.

“From today, we are already incorporating more gesture and touchbased interaction in our world, and are increasingly reliant on mobile and tablet-based devices.”

What user engagement covers

User engagement applies to the whole digital space, not just the web. As part of this picture, Intergen is looking at systems and applications, desktops, kiosks and mobile devices and taking into consideration the ways in which these all interact with each other and combine to deliver an overall experience.

This is where the concept of service design comes in, says April. “It’s important to look at delivering your service or information consistently across multiple channels – not just tackling one at a time in isolation. Air New Zealand is an excellent example of a company with great service design. No matter how you engage with Air New Zealand, they seek to deliver a seamless and continuous experience – whether you’re on the move, at your desk or in the air.”

Intergen’s Web Strategy team brings a ‘toolbox’ to each user engagement assignment, as each project requires a different approach. In any one project they could be developing personas, designing scenarios, conducting workshops or creating user interface blueprints.

Keeping it front-of-mind

User engagement is an ongoing process because users are always changing and technology is constantly evolving – it’s not a task you can ever tick off as having been completed.

It’s still surprising to see the number of projects that begin without the project owners having a general understanding of who their users are.

A number of projects also treat user engagement as a bolt-on, with user testing happening at the very last minute. Engage with users early on and often. You don’t have to over-engineer it either – lots of small, informal sessions can be more useful.

Done correctly, user engagement helps reduce the layers of complexity that these projects can often suffer from. If you can involve the whole development team face-to-face with users, this gives greater purpose to the project.

Start out small, launching with the core functions and features first, and build incrementally from there. And engage the services of an end-to-end provider to ensure your business requirements are fully delivered.

If your website is in need of a spring clean, check out Intergen's Website Checklist here. And to find out more about the latest trends, technologies and what Intergen's been up to. Check out our recent SMARTS magazine here.

Posted by: Giles Brown, Web Strategist | 07 December 2011

Tags: Engaged Web, R&D, website engagement

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