Blog Post

Conducting a User Experience Audit

“If you would understand anything, observe its
beginning and its development.”
– Aristotle

A User Experience (UX) Audit is a secondary research method that pulls together any potentially relevant existing information on your software product and it’s market, and then reviews what you find in the context of your design goals. It’s a straightforward approach I’ve use in just about every strategy project I’ve completed for clients.

This article is intended to illustrate the type of data commonly available that can be helpful. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but should be enough to point you in the right direction. I recommend starting any strategic effort with this approach because it is vital to have a baseline understanding of the market landscape before learning more about the users within that market. In addition, much of the information and insights gleaned from this type of evaluation can be used to directly inform other user research methods, such as persona or survey development. I usually start the audit process as early as possible via Internet research and by requesting client artifacts even when an engagement does not specifically call for a formal “audit”.

Most organizations have existing structures by which they pull in various usage and marketing metrics. However, this data is not usually being evaluated with a user-centric, user behavior mindset. A UX Audit entails skimming through a large volume of data to unearth a relatively small set of relevant informational nuggets. Even still, they are a worthwhile effort, and the audit’s scope can be defined in a manageable way.

Err on the side of collecting more information than less. If a client or stakeholder tells you the content you are requesting is not relevant, it is a good idea to be persistent and review the information for yourself. They might not be looking at with a “UX” mindset.

A UX Audit can be used to answer the following questions:

  • What are the current user trends and expectation for this industry/market?
  • What have we already tried? Of that, what worked and what didn’t?
  • What do our internal stakeholders think about our UX?
    What do they think is needed? Why?
  • What customer issues, needs or problems are indicated in the data? Of those, which might be addressed (in whole or part) by the product’s UX?
  • What ongoing metrics are being collected that UX can use in the future?

Why Conduct an Audit?

The most obvious benefit to conducting an audit is to avoid reinventing the wheel, i.e. conducting new primary research when the same information was already available. An equally productive reason is to help you formulate hypothesis about user behavior and/or issues with your product that you can then investigate further. A supplemental benefit is that the process can help you compile an accessible body of UX knowledge for your products that you can build upon over time

When are Audits Most Useful?

  • When undertaking the development of a new product.
  • Before starting a substantive re-design.
  • When starting a UX practice within an organization.
  • As an exercise for new staff to ramp into product knowledge.
  • If your company has accumulated a large amount of product research data that was conducted by different departments for different uses.

Development Life-cycle

In the context of the software development life-cycle, UX Audits will be most useful if conducted in the high level and detailed requirements gathering stages. Some audit materials can be re-evaluated post production as follow up research to track the effects of the product’s release e.g. customer care data, web analytics, sales data, etc.

Limitations of an Audit

  • There is no guarantee that you will find data that addresses any specific questions. Sometimes the data isn’t there or it is too abstract to be useful in the context of UXD.
  • It can be time consuming and somewhat overwhelming for the beginner to process the information, especially if audits are rarely conducted.
  • Because the audit materials are almost entirely secondary research, you are limited to the methodologies, goals, and potential flaws of the existing research.
  • A good audit involves a wide range of information sources. New companies and some industries might have difficulty pulling together sufficiently diverse sources during the first few audits. In some cases research might need to be purchased.

How to Conduct the Audit

The steps to conducting a UX Audit are straightforward. (source)At a high level, you gather the audit materials together, create a spreadsheet for notes, review the materials, document findings, and then develop your insights or hypothesis for further research.

  1. Pull together your audit materials. The start of a UX audit is an excellent time to engage colleagues from other departments; you can solicit their help in gathering information and get different groups involved with tracking data over time.
    • Stakeholder Interviews – Interviews are a  great starting point for a UX Audit and can go along way to help you gather the materials you need. You will want to speak (one on one) with internal stakeholders such as department heads, product managers and lead developers. You might already speak with these individuals, but interviewing them specifically about market landscape and customer issues may not only provide some good insights, but it can go a long way in gaining buy-in and support for your efforts. Be sure to ask each stakeholder for a list of their recommended materials and follow-up to get them.
    • Sales Statistics – While primarily used by sales and finance, some of this data can be useful for a UX Audit, particularly if you are reviewing the effectiveness of a lead generating, or e-commerce web site. One thing to look for would be information that indicates a problem with the messaging or help functions of the site. For example, if a site selling window curtains, has a higher ratio of online customers who return curtains they bought online due to “wrong size” than their in-store customers, this might indicate a potential issue with the clarity of size information on the site.
    • Call Center Data –Call centers are a great way to gather information about what ticks people off. While much of the information may not be relevant, you can usually gain some key insights about what is missing, or even better, get ideas on what you can proactively improve. As example, the online signup process for a broadband company I worked with had functionality that would tell users if they were eligible for services or not. A UX Audit of call center data showed that a percentage of customers who were initially told they were eligible, were actually ineligible after a closer review of their order details. While we were unable to resolve this programmatically in the short term, armed with this understanding, we were able to modify functionality and messaging to more appropriately set expectation for users.
    • Web Analytics – Quantitative web analytics will give you insight into how many people are visiting your web site, where they are coming from, what they are looking at, and some trends over time. Advanced analytical tools can be implemented and mined to give ever-increasing detail about what people are doing once they get to your site, where they tend to drop off, and where they go once they leave. I’ve had at least one corporate client who were not mining their web logs. Luckily, the data was being collected, just not used within an analytics software. We were able to get them setup with an appropriate package that allowed the team to view  historical and ongoing site usage.
    • Adoption Metrics – Feature adoption/usage metrics are a good way to assess the efficacy of desktop and/or web-based operational support system. These metrics can be system-tracked, but in some cases need to be manually investigated. While fairly easy for a SaaS or mobile provider, if you are a desktop application provider, you might only be able to get your customer adoption metrics through surveys or interviews if these monitoring touch-points have not been build into your system.
    • Feedback and Surveys Results – Many Marketing groups put out feedback forms and/or have released campaign-specific user surveys. These are usually not UX focused, but can offer some insights into your user’s preferences, attitudes and behaviors. Take some time to scan the comment fields and categorize them if possible. You can turn this information into useful statistics with supplemental anecdotes. E.g. “20% of user comments referred to difficulty finding something”. “I can’t find baby buggies, do you still sell them?”
    • Past Reviews & Studies – Any internal market research, usability studies, ethnographic studies, or expert reviews[1] conducted should be audited. Even if a study was conducted for a previous release or under a different context than your project, an audit may reveal some key informational gems and so are worth scanning through. In addition to your own critical eye, it is a wise idea to find out if others in the organization valued the research and why.
    • The Twitterverse and Blogosphere – While not relevant for all companies, review sites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites can offer a unique and unfiltered view of how customers perceive your software or website. Try searching your company or product’s name on Google and other sites to see what information is returned. Some of the social networking sites even offer functionality that helps you keep track. If people are talking, you may want to add this type of task to your research calendar at consistent intervals.
    • Specifications – Take a look at product functional specifications, roadmaps, and business analyses. Anything generated relatively recently that can give some background insight into why certain feature or functions have been developed might prove useful. Many of these documents have some relevant facts about users that were researched by the authors. At best it will save you some of your own research time, at worst you’ll have a better understanding of why certain decisions were made for what exists today.
    • Market Research – While market research might give insight into user demographics, this type of research is usually not directly translatable into how you should design your product. However, it can help you
      develop hypotheses about what might work and provide a framework for user personas and user narratives. These hypotheses can be tested through other research methods. Market Research can help you make a reasonable guess at things such as; users’ technology skill level, initial expectations, or level of commitment to completing certain tasks.
  2. Create a Spreadsheet. Create a spreadsheet listing all of the materials you will be auditing. You can use this as a means of tracking what was reviewed, and by whom if more than one person is working on the audit. The spreadsheet can also be used as a central place to put your notes, facts, insights, ideas and questions generated by the review of each audit material.
  3. Review the Materials. Review materials for any relevant information, updating your spreadsheet as you progress. While it sounds daunting, the audit process can be a fairly cursory review, you don’t need to view every bit of detail—just scanning can be sufficient. Remember, you are only trying to pull out the 10-15% of data that will be relevant to the goals of your project.
  4. Categorize Findings. After you’ve completed the review portion of the UX Audit, it’s time to clean up your spreadsheet notes, analyze the information, and categorize any findings. Try to distill what you’ve learned into high-level concepts that are supported by data points and anecdotes, followed by your hypothesis. An oversimplified example of categorized findings would be:
  5. Category – Way Finding (Users ability to find things) Data- 20% of feedback comments referred to users not being able to find what they are looking for.
    – A recent study indicates that if users can’t find an item within 3 minutes they leave the site.
    Anecdote
    “I can’t find baby buggies, do you still sell them?”
    Hypotheses
    We might have an issue with our site’s navigation or taxonomy. We might need a search function.

  6. Schedule a Read-out. Take time to present your findings, setup a read-out for your colleagues. After conducting the read-out, publish your documentation on the intranet, to a wiki, in a document management system or on a file share. Let people know where you’ve placed the information. Now is a good time to tentatively schedule the next Audit on your research calendar.

Additional Resources

  1. Pew Internet Life (www.pewinternet.org) – Internet research, ongoing
  2. Omniture (www.omniture.com)robust analytics package
  3. Web Trends (www.webtrends.com) middle range analytics package
  4. Google Analytics (analytics.google.com) – analytics with useful functions
  5. Forrester (www.forrester.com) – Market research
  6. ComScore (www.comscore.com) – Market research

Questions About This Topic?

I’m happy to answer more in-depth questions about this topic or provide further insight into how this approach might work for you in your company. Post a comment or email me at dorothy [at] danforthmedia [dot] com

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Danforth is a design strategy firm offering software product planning, user research, and user centered design (UCD). We provide credible insights and creative solutions that allow our clients to deliver successful, customer-focused products. Danforth specializes in leveraging user experience design (UXD), design strategy, and design research methodologies to optimize complex multi-platform products for the people who use them.

We transform research into smart, enjoyable, and enduring design.
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[1] Common term used to describe a usability evaluation conducted by a UX specialist.

Article’s ‘Audit All The Things” image source.