5 research mistakes and why you must avoid them

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January 30, 2014
5 research mistakes and why you must avoid them.

thumbnailBefore you first meet with project stakeholders for a website design or redesign, you’ll want to prepare yourself by researching the company the website represents and the nature of the audience it serves. You also need to familiarize yourself with any existing site’s content and features.

That first meeting will be where you set the course of the design, establishing the goals and requirements of the project. The more informed you are at this stage, the better your input, and your requests for input, will be.

How do you approach the research steps for a website redesign? Do you follow a written checklist, or do you take intuitive twists and turns around the basic questions, “What is this website about?” and “How can we make it better?” Your answer probably lies somewhere along the spectrum between those two extremes. It’s also likely to vary considerably from project to project.

To ensure that you’ll bring valuable insights to the table at this critical stage and throughout the course of the work, make sure to avoid the following pitfalls.

1) Only critiquing the current visuals, without also assessing the content and structure

In a perfect world, the client would include a realistic assessment of a website’s content and structure in the project brief. For a variety of reasons, this rarely happens. For one thing, it may simply be assumed that it is your job. Also, even if the client does provide that information, they may be so close to the site, they are likely to miss or underestimate important facets.

For content, it’s in your best interest to assess everything. That’s not a big deal for a small site, but a big site, especially one that’s overdue for a deep redesign, will likely have forgotten corners, some of them obsolete and some of them surprise gems — valuable information buried in an accidental labyrinth of excessively deep and seo-hostile taxonomy.

In addition, take the time to assess, even chart, the website’s structure. There’s a good chance it no longer matches the old charts they’ve got on file. Not only that, your fresh design perspectives are likely to shed a unique light on resources your client didn’t even know they had.

2) Critiquing the current visuals with the intent to “outdo”

If you are concentrating on how you’ll rival the previous designer, you aren’t concentrating on your client’s business needs. Unless you were there to see the process unfold, you have no idea what precipitated their “questionable” design choices. Circumstances may or may not have changed since the last website design; there may have been challenges they faced that you have yet to (or may never) encounter.

Do evaluate the visuals, but from the perspective of understanding the continuum. A new designer coming in after a previous one should be wary of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” What spark or fresh energy is reflected in the old look? How do current customers relate, even identify, with it? And what is the company ready to reach for this time? The visuals reflect the company’s self image as it was. Your job isn’t to strike away inferior design, but rather to discover what is no longer adequate, and to help them evolve their business identity.

3) Ignoring the current community

If you stop at what the client tells you is the nature of their community, you’ll be missing an opportunity. Sometimes, they can be guilty of seeing what they’d like to see, rather than what’s actually happening. You’re the “visiting fireman” and a fresh, new user. Your first impressions here (as well as in other aspects of the website) will be priceless.

If the facility exists, sign up to the website and actively engage in the community (as appropriate, since some communities are private). Who are they? What’s the dominant culture? Are there “subcultures”? At what points are you confused or unsure about how to participate? Is the community welcoming? If not, what are their reasons? Are there unofficial leaders or stars who tend to set the tone? Who is contributing valuable content, and are they doing it because of, or in spite of the current website or managers’ support?

What do any of these types of research questions have to do with design? When you take into account that design is, by definition, anything (anything) done with a plan and a purpose, then the ideas you propose can address, for example, how the community UI can be improved in order to recognize and support valuable contributors and encourage optimal behaviors.

4) Forgetting to review the site’s current analytics (or worse, jumping to hasty conclusions about them)

Reviewing a site’s current analytics is an imperative. Not only that, even if they are supplied in the brief, you may need to look deeply at more than the numbers provided. The site in question may not even have analytics in place, or they may be too superficial. Yes, you can make very good, educated guesses about the effectiveness of a clunky call to action in the sidebar, or the usefulness of a top nav bar that has sub-sub-sub-menus. On the other hand, people occasionally respond in surprising ways. If the website caters more to returning users, their familiarity with the site’s quirks could be tragically thrown by sudden, rather than incremental changes, even if those are proven usability enhancements.

That said, this is one area where your “fresh perspective” may be a liability. Website analytics are easy to misinterpret, especially when we are stepping in cold, and aren’t yet connected with the history of the site and the business. Question your own findings, and treat them as preliminary, rather than conclusive. Revisiting the analytics over the course of the project are likely to yield new layers of insight.

Don’t do this last: make sure analytics are set up at the outset, while initial discussion is still under way. These will serve as an indispensable benchmark against which you can continue to suggest improvements, and also measure changes after launch.

5) Merely following client directives

In addition to (and not instead of) respecting client directives, find at least one unasked-for thing you can bring to the table. Often, within a client’s concrete, specific requests, is a bigger more abstract request. Stating that they want Zapfino headings may be the reflection of an unverbalized desire to instill their business identity with a greater sense of luxury. Give them the option they asked for (implemented well), and also give them the option you think better meets the essence of their request.

This is where research comes in. Using the “luxury” example mentioned above, you’ll want to find out how the concept is regarded within the client’s industry, and also explore current design ideas for luxury brands in general. Just because they say “we specifically want Zapfino,” it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll dismiss your ideas, especially if they feel you are listening to their directives while adding further value. An unexpected idea that is clearly thoughtful and well-researched will be much easier to sell, and will do wonders for your professional relationships, as well.


Design research and web design research are activities that can be happening along the entire course of a redesign project. They tend to (and should) happen organically as questions arise, so it’s likely you’re more than satisfactorily addressing at least a few of the above warnings. However, these are called pitfalls for a reason: at one time or another, one or more of these oversights has very possibly tripped you up, whether or not you were aware of the cause.

If any of these research mistakes strikes a chord, integrate the suggested remedies into your own web design (or redesign) process by adding them to your formal or personal checklists. If you happen to be smack in the middle of a redesign project, this may be the perfect opportunity to give it a healthy and strategic boost.

Are any of these mistakes uncomfortably familiar? What other pitfalls have you encountered? Let us know in the comments.

WDD Staff

WDD staff are proud to be able to bring you this daily blog about web design and development. If there's something you think we should be talking about let us know @DesignerDepot.

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