The Right Time for Research: The Beginning

If you have ever been to the Fucked Company Web site, you’ve read about all the audaciously stupid dot-com ideas that have died sad, unprofitable deaths. My favorite is the “breakfast cereal portal” (I’m not kidding).

Did anyone ever do any research before funding these boondoggles? Probably not the right kind of research. From loads of venture capital shoveled into dot-coms to big bucks blown on giving offline companies a Web presence, plenty of dumb money was spent on Web sites that most reasonable people would find worthless.

But that’s changing. Now that the rush to be on the Web is ceding to a more reasoned, disciplined approach, “speed to market” is being replaced by “Is there a market?” And smart companies are finding that there is no better way to find out what their customers and prospects might need than by asking them.

As this industry matures, it is becoming more research driven. The most successful companies in the world, the likes of GE and Procter & Gamble, have disciplined processes that incorporate research every step of the way. Now companies are starting to adopt that approach when it comes to building for the Web.

I recently helped put together a panel discussion about usability testing for the New York New Media Association Research SIG. Ever since a poorly designed ballot helped steal the 2000 presidential election, the topic has been hot, and we had more than 100 people in attendance.

I have written a number of times in this space about the importance of usability testing in developing a Web site that customers find navigable, comprehensible, functional, and valuable. Good usability is the core of any Web site’s value proposition — and it’s virtually impossible to design a usable site without testing it on customers.

A Case Study

But according to panelist Michael Summers of Scient, classic usability testing, in which customers are recruited into a lab and asked to use and comment on a site prototype, is often too little, too late. He argued that research should begin before the site building and that this research should take place not in a lab but out where customers live and work.

Summers recounted an interesting case study that illustrates the value of this approach. His company was hired by a former sports superstar who wanted to develop a digital product for urban African-Americans. The product was to be either Web based or wireless and would focus on sports and entertainment, issues thought to be most compelling to the target customers.

Summers’s team took a video camera into the heart of Atlanta and New York to interview dozens of people on the streets and in their homes. What they found surprised them. Consistently, those interviewed said that they were tired of being targeted with sports and entertainment content; some were even offended by what they perceived as stereotypical assumptions about what they wanted.

The videotaped interviews convinced the client that the project was headed in the wrong direction. The research made it clear that the project planners needed to devise a completely different approach.

Begin Before Beginning

Summers concludes this way: “If we had waited until we had built something, like a Web site, before we tested it, we would have already spent a whole lot of money on something that people didn’t want or need. And chances are, usability tests would have told us how to improve navigation or functionality — not that the product was unwanted in the first place.”

According to Summers, going to where people live and work — called “immersive” or “contextual” research — has great advantages over focus groups and surveys, particularly when a Web site is meant to integrate into an activity people already do, such as paying the bills. “People can’t accurately tell you how they do something — no one’s that self-aware,” he explains. “[But] it’s amazing how much you can learn by watching people go about their daily tasks.”

Learning from real people about the usefulness and viability of your Internet plans before you spend a bundle of money is smart business. As Summers says, “It’s insane to build a Web site for someone you never met.” I couldn’t agree more.

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