Questioning visitors – why are you here?

T-shirt with a bold, pink question mark With the unveiling this month of a new interface and features for the Google Analytics tool for measuring website traffic, the power of numbers is once brought to the forefront of the web analytics world.

There is something seductive about being able to try to understand what visitors to your website are doing just by looking at the stats. I’m not the first to realize this does not give the full picture.

For Avinash Kuashik, author of Web Analytics 2.0, blogger at Occam’s Razor and much more, actively listening to your customer is an imperative: “This way, you stay of top of their expectations, and you also gain the key context you need, the why, for making sense of your what, which is your clickstream data.”

In Web Analytics 2.0 Kuashik lists half a dozen methods for doing this. Some are on the emerging side, such as rapid usability testing (eg, virtual heatmaps and online cardsorting, whereas others are just plain expensive, particularly lab based user testing.

When it came to devising an approach to hear from visitors for one of the websites I’m working we’ve elected to look at another of the approaches described by Kaushik: online surveys.

In my quest to find the best tool to reach users, I’ve set aside one of the ways of prompting visitors for comments which are common now days. You’ll notice “Feedback” or “Comment” badges hovering on the margins of the page on many websites. However, these are easy to miss and passive as no explicit request to participate is made of the visitor. They’re really only good for highly motivated visitors.

More active approaches rely on those dreaded pop-up surveys. There seems to be no way around it if you actually want to directly ask people for feedback, rather than rely on a discrete feedback badge. I reckon if you’re going to use pop-ups it’s best feedback is collected in a way that minimises any pain for visitors.

Giving visitors the maximum amount of control over their web experience is critical. The key with pop-up surveys is offering people a clear choice of whether they participate, and exactly when (now, later or never). I also think it’s important to be able to link to privacy policies, and to display contact information of the organisation running the survey. As the survey appears magically, from thin air, people need to know the survey is legit.

When looking at whole range of the tools on offer I found they are not all equal. There are those that offer the world works, including a full survey solution and customized support, but as they don’t list prices I figure are in the high price category. These don’t meet the DIY and affordability criteria I’m currently working within.

Another option I’m not pursuing is building a collector from scratch as this is time consuming and development hours would likely add up. A user-friendly interface to manage feedback would take extra effort. For those this with in-house development skills and not requiring a polished interface to review and sort results, this is definitely an option.

Of the commercial options I’ve looked at there are some which are DIY and affordable. Typically you pay on a monthly basis, and can cancel without giving notice. The code for the pop-up needs to be embedded on all the pages you want it to appear, so some technical input is required. All the options described below have a dashboard of some sort for viewing responses.

The big online survey companies and wannabes are now offering the option of running pop-up surveys as a part of their standard packages. You can run a multi-question survey, using a full range of question types, using both SurveyMonkey and FluidSurveys. As these are add-ons to already comprehensive online survey tools, the appearance of the pop-up windows is simpler and less customizable than those offered by specialist pop-up providers. To get full control of pop-ups with FluidSurveys means you have to sign-up to the US$59 per month plan (which lets you also run an unlimited number of other surveys).

Kampyle and SimpleFeedback offer survey tools that give visitors a choice of categories for their feedback. To seek feedback or questions about products, technical support and general, each could be displayed on a tab, with a further subset of questions available on each tab. You can not run standard questionnaires. Kampyle offer a 50% discount off the monthly plan fees for not-for-profits, and have plugins for both Drupal and WordPress to simplify the implementation process.

I’ve been using SimpleFeedback on my blog and it’s definitely easy to use and implement (via a WordPress plugin). It’s cheap too – with prices staring at US$9 per month for 20 items of feedback.

The 4Q online survey tool offered by iPercpeptions also restricts the questions that can be asked. The underpinning logic for the questionnaire design is based on Kaushik’s experience – ask the three greatest questions ever!! These are: what is the purpose of your visit, were you able to complete your task, and if not, why not? At this stage you can’t customise the design of the pop-up window or add additional questions – perhaps a drawback of using a free tool. An expanded range of options is coming soon as part of a new 4Q suite being offered at relatively low prices.

Having looked in depth at all these tools, I’d have to say none are perfect. By that I mean, they are not a good match for my particular needs. They may well suit other situations and audiences.

This seems to be the key to it: determining exactly type of feedback is needed, the extras you need (eg displaying visual identity) then weighing up the options. Once again I turn to Kaushik, who shares some good tips when considering the best way to run a survey (see “Eight Tips For Choosing An Online Survey Provider”)

I suspect that you need a fair few visitors to generate feedback in any appreciable quantity. I haven’t seen anything about a rule of thumb, but I suspect the ratio of all visitors to those that give feedback is quite high.

Of course, the whole point of doing this is getting qualitative feedback rather than generating statistically significant amounts of feedback. Insight gained from visitors is about tuning yourself into the most important areas for improvement on your website. What incremental tweaks and additions can I make to the website to improve the visitor experience? The feedback can also be used as a new jumping off point for fresh analysis of the statistics. Which in turn leads to more questions and a need for refined testing.

So far I’ve just been setting things up and have yet to generate feedback, but I’m looking forward to seeing what people say.

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