There's no need to book that online psychology course, read this bluffer's guide by Dave Evans, head of digital at Chapter.

themission is a technology-embraced marketing communications and advertising Group employing 1,100 people in the UK, Asia and US. The Group comprises two divisions: Integrated Agencies and Sector Specialist Agencies, which work together to provide Clients with the expertise and resource to make them more successful in today’s challenging environment.

Dave Evans is Head of Digital at Chapter, part of themission. He’s worked in digital for long enough that he can remember when it was ‘new media’ and the web was mostly fields. A creative strategist by background, over the better part of the last twenty years he’s delivered projects for the likes of Virgin Trains, Nissan, Premier Inn, and Jewson amongst others, and racked up a number of awards for digital design along the way. This year he completed a masters with distinction in psychology and has a keen interest in exploring the emotional and cognitive motivations behind peoples use of online tech.

Here Dave tells us how to gain some insight into the behaviour of your site’s users...

We all love a good reminisce. Sometimes I cast my mind back eighteen years to when I was a fresh-faced graduate straight out of what was known back then as Leeds Metropolitan University, and I landed my first agency role designing websites.

In those days the Internet was still mostly fields: well, star fields to be precise, their use on webpages a revelation to some working in the web at that time, often employed with a liberal use of an obscure system font or “playful” application of Comic Sans, with enough blinking GIFs onscreen to detach retinas from a distance of twenty paces.

The epitome of a good website was generally based on considered use of Flash or a well-conceived splash intro screen. As designers and developers, our minds eyes were squeegeed wide open with the introduction of the content management system. And then came social media. Nowadays, it’s fairly easy to spin up a reasonable website with off the shelf tools and templates, and so conversion, optimisation, and the best possible user experience have now become the goals in every web manager’s quest for excellence.

And the World Wide Web knows it. A wise man once said, “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant”. Fire up your web browser and search for articles on user experience, website optimisation, or improving your conversion rate and you’ll be drowning in results. Because every business wants the best, most effective website possible in an effort to outmanoeuvre their competition online.

At some point in the quest for the perfect site some clever clogs postulated about the power of leveraging psychological constructs for this task, as a means of securing a competitive advantage. If you sup at the Internet Fire Hydrant of Knowledge you’ll unearth myriad articles advocating the use of Gestalt principles in web design, about utilising Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the scoping of your site or pontificating about how your UX design work needs an understanding of propositional knowledge. (Okay, maybe not the latter). There’s fundamentally nothing wrong with any of this information – as Thomas Hobbes once said, “Knowledge is power” – but you don’t need a PhD in cognitive psychology to understand how people’s minds work when they access your site. You just need to follow this one simple rule, and that is to acknowledge that:

You are not your website’s users.

Simple as. Okay, you may have set your business up based on a passion, or from an inherent understanding and experience of an industry, sector or product, but this is not a given understanding of how your websites visitors use it. Classic economics posits that we are all rational people saving for our old age, never doing anything that might be bad for us and that we generally behave in highly logical, enlightened ways. Behavioural economics on the other hand (which is underpinned by psychology) understands that we are not like this at all: people do not behave how you, me or they think they behave.

It’s why a raft of large advertising agencies, blue chips, and even the UK government have set up units with the sole aim of trying to understand the motivations of the public. But you don’t need to go to the lengths of setting up research divisions or ethnographic labs to ground your site in really real human behaviour and insight. Just acknowledge what behavioural economics knows, which is that consumers do not act how you believe they should act.

There’s a huge range of tools and techniques that can be employed for optimising your site and assessing its efficacy, and this can be quite daunting. Heuristics, analytics, card sorting, red routes, user stories, wireframes, sketching, prototyping, split testing, competitive analysis, content audits, user journeys, eye tracking, personas, the list goes on. All are valid. All have their place in a process of continuous website improvement, which is crucial in today’s competitive marketing landscape (and if you are not regularly assessing the effectiveness of your site and improving it ongoing, you certainly should be, even at a grass roots level). But you can gain some insight into the behaviour of your site’s users in some really rather straightforward ways. The first rule for doing this is to begin by engaging with them in their own world. Get out and see what they do and why they do it. Talk to them. Ask their opinion: people love to give it ultimately, and that’s a simple truth of human nature too.

Getting outside of the office and talking to your prospective customers, gaining their thoughts and input on your site, and beginning to understand their use of it is some of the most powerful data you can collect. A word of warning though – as with pretty much everything in life, there are caveats (nothing’s ever that straightforward, unfortunately) – know that even with the best will in the world, people won’t always give you a true account of things. That’s not to say that their aim is to intentionally mislead you, but understand that the mind is a highly complex and therefore highly fallible thing that’s prone to a range of deficits that can lead us to misunderstanding, misconstruing and misremembering things, failing to retain a true recollection of our thoughts and feelings from time to time.

Collecting your insight in context can help mitigate against these fallibilities. Collect it in the worlds your customers live in but remember that the core objective is to gather enough data to weed out these anomalies and outliers and generalise the most pertinent points of what you have captured. This is the information you then use to optimise and improve your site against. Real world insight into the behaviour of your customers is highly valuable and trumps any other techniques in all actuality.

So there’s no need to book that online psychology course. Unless you really, really want to.

September 2018