The following is a short extract from our book, Researching UX: Analytics, written by Luke Hay. It’s the ultimate guide to using analytics for improved user experience. SitePoint Premium members get access with their membership, or you can buy a copy in stores worldwide.

To understand why your users behave the way they do, you first need to get to know them. You may make assumptions about who those users are, but you should be constantly challenging those assumptions, or at least be backing them up with facts.

There’s a lot of data available in your analytics package that will help build up your knowledge of who’s visiting your website. The more you know about your users, the more informed your design decisions can be.

This data can form a useful starting point for many different types of research. One area where this data is particularly helpful is in recruiting people for usability tests. In usability testing, the better the participant matches the target persona, the better the test.

Usability testing should show how “real” users interact with your website, and where they may be experiencing issues. Knowing who your users are will improve the results of your usability testing, and will give you a better chance of uncovering the issues your “real” users are encountering.

The following section looks at the data in your analytics tool that will help build up your understanding of who your users are.

How Do Users Find Your Website?

Analyzing how users are finding your website can help you understand more about them, and about the context of their visit.

Different analytics tools will classify “traffic sources” or “channels” in different ways. The following are some typical sources for your traffic:

  • Organic search. This typically identifies a user who has clicked an “unpaid” link from the search results.
  • Paid search. Paid search users, sometimes known as “Pay Per Click” or “PPC”, will have arrived on your website via a paid advert on a search engine.
  • Referral. Users from referral links will have followed a link from another website.
  • Social. Social media is often shown as a separate channel from other referral links.
  • Direct. This category includes users who type your domain into the address bar of their browser. It can also include users where the analytics package was unable to identify their traffic source.
  • Email. Links in emails will need to be tagged, since by default, analytics tools are unable to identify users clicking links that don’t appear on web pages.

This analysis can give you a better idea about your users’ intentions. If you’re running a paid search campaign, for example, you’ll be able to see the keywords that were used to find your website (as long as you’ve linked up the Google Analytics and Adwords accounts, and enabled auto-tagging). If users are finding you based on “brand” search terms, you know they’re aware of your company and are searching for you specifically.

Analyzing the behavioral metrics for users, broken down by channel, can help content and marketing teams make decisions about the amount of effort, resources, and budget to dedicate to specific channels. From a UX perspective, it can be useful for identifying problem areas (see Chapter 4), but it also helps to give insight into the mindset of your users. Knowing where your users are coming from can help you to identify whether they’re already familiar with your website, and can start to give you clues about the likely purpose of their visit.

Where Do Your Users Come From?

To begin with, it’s a good idea to start by finding out where—geographically speaking—your users come from. This is a very broad level of analysis that will help you focus your research. Looking at the location of your users will show you the role international visitors play in the success of your website. Geodata will also give you insight into the behavior of users on a national and regional level.

Most analytics tools will give you location data for your users. In Google Analytics, this can be found in Audience > Geo > Location. This report will tell you where your users are coming from, and will also allow you to compare behavior metrics (and different dimensions) for users from different countries, regions or cities.

Location report in Google Analytics

Looking at the percentage of visitors from each country will help you understand the importance of international visitors to your website.

But you need to be careful with your analysis here. Just because no one visits your site from Canada, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that audience is not important to you. You could be accidentally blocking them! Your marketing efforts may not be reaching where they should, or there may be a whole host of other reasons for the lack of visits. Once again, remember that your website analytics tell you what, but not why.

You may be assuming your website only attracts visitors from your own country, but this report may show that you should also consider the needs of international visitors. This could lead to practical considerations—such as the load speed of your website in other countries, international delivery rates for an ecommerce site, and possible cultural differences between other countries and your own.

Cultural differences based on the country of your visitors can be considerations for both your website’s design and functionality. These differences can be hard to cater for, as cultural differences may be subtle, and often won’t lead to clear ideas for design changes. Still, detailed research on the cultural needs of you users is definitely recommended.

On a more practical level, the way people use ecommerce websites varies dramatically depending on their country. According to data from Worldpay, only 12% of users in Germany make online purchases using cards.

This compares with 63% of UK users and 72% of users in the USA. If you notice that your ecommerce website is getting a lot of visits from Germany, you’ll want to look at offering alternative payment methods. The most popular type of online payment in Germany in real-time bank transfer.

Looking beyond the number of visits, you’ll be able to see behavioral metrics, such as time on site, bounce rate and conversion rate. Focusing on user behavior will enable you to pinpoint particular countries where there may be issues with your website, and thus opportunities to make improvements. If, for example, your ecommerce website is getting a lot of visits from a certain country, or countries, but the conversion rate is low, you may want to reassure those users that you deliver internationally.

There could be many reasons why your conversion rate is low in a particular country. You may not ship to that country, your site may be in the wrong language, the products may be cheaper in that country, or you may not offer the right payment methods (as in the example of Germany). This is where it’s important not to jump to conclusions. Remember, the data only tells you what is happening. It’s important that you set aside research time to find out why.

If you can see an opportunity to increase your conversion rate internationally, you might also want to consider personalizing your website in some way for those countries. This could be as simple as showing the flag of that country and being up front about the exact costs and delivery times for that location. This simple form of personalization will likely resonate with your international users, and will help you unlock potential additional revenue from international sales.

If your analytics shows you’re getting a lot of visits from other countries, you’re likely to be missing out if you don’t factor in cultural differences!

Geo reports can locate users down to state and city level. This means you may also want to assess your visitors by state, region and city to get a clearer picture of who your visitors are and how they behave. The importance of this level of detail will depend on the purpose of your website. For political websites, for example, localized data can be very important to see how a candidate is performing in a key state or region.

What Language Do Your Users Speak?

Knowing what language your users speak can give you additional insight into the content you should serve up. Language and location are sometimes confused when looking at analytics, but the two dimensions have no direct connection. A user can be located in Paris but speak Spanish. Location is ascertained by the IP address of your user, while their language can be derived from the language settings of their browser.

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