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Google Analytics: How to Perform User Research

Knowing who your users are is crucial to any design process, and user research plays a vital role in that. User research consists of a whole range of different tools and techniques, but what underpins them all is gathering useful information about who your users are and what they want to achieve. When you know what they want to achieve, you can help them achieve it.

Research isn’t only about asking users what they like or hate, but establishing cold, hard facts about them (for example, age and gender demographics, or what browser/device they’re using). We can use analytics to source these facts, so that we can base our design decisions on objective truths.

In this article, I’ll give you some tips on how your analytics data can support and inform your user research, using Google Analytics as the tool of choice for carrying out this research. The data that you source from Google Analytics is no substitute for in-depth user research, but taking an analytics-first approach to research will help you build strong foundations.

If you’d rather take a step back and learn a little more about Google Analytics first, then check out my article on getting started with Google Analytics.

Analytics-first: How It Works

There’s no singular method for approaching user research. You can approach user research in different ways, so the method may change depending on the client or scenario. I like to take an analytics-first approach to UX design, using data from Google Analytics as a starting point for the research process.

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Google Analytics data can be used at the start of your process to get a rough idea of the types of users visiting your website. It can then be used to help you create detailed user personas, and to analyze the behavior of those different user types. Analytics will tell you what visitors are doing on your app or website, but it can also be used to find out information about them as people.

With this information, your design then has a direction.

Let’s take a look at some Google Analytics reports that are really useful for starting off the user research process. It’s important to know that you shouldn’t use any of this data in isolation to make UX decisions. Your Google Analytics data should be used as a jumping off point for additional research, rather than a basis for your design decisions. This additional research can take the form of user interviews, user surveys, usability testing, and so on.

Language and Location

Language and Location reports can be found under the Geo sub-section of the Audience reports. The geographical location of your users may alert you to any cultural factors that you should be aware of when designing.

The Location section

For example, around 58% of German shoppers pay by invoice for online purchases, so if you manage an ecommerce website and you notice you’re getting a lot of German visitors, you may want to consider whether your payment options are suitable enough. Also, in many Asian cultures, the color red means “good luck”, while in the West it’s associated with “error”, so analytics can alert you to any critical UX flaws like that.

Language can also impact your visual design, as the length of words will change when translated, so you may end up with strange-looking call-to-action buttons in certain languages. Different alphabets will also have an impact. For example, the Chinese alphabet is made up of thousands of characters, and Arabic is read from right-to-left. Factors like these will have an impact on your layouts.

Demographics

Demographics information can be found in Google Analytics under the Audience section as well. These reports will tell you, with an 80%–90% degree of accuracy, the ages and genders of your users.

Data on Age and Gender

From different ages and genders, it’s important to look at the differences in user behavior as well as the number of visits. You may notice a big difference in conversion rates between older and younger users, and this may be something you go on to investigate in more detail using more qualitative research methods. Maybe there’s an accessibility issue for older users?

Demographics are also useful for recruiting usability testers and subjects for user interviews. For example, if you notice that 80% of your users are female, then you’ll want to ensure that women make up the majority of your usability testing group, to ensure quality responses that reflect your core audience.

Browsers and Devices

Browser and Device reports in Google Analytics, found within the Audience section also, are used mostly for functionality testing. Analysts will often look at which browsers their visitors are using, and then implement testing on the most commonly used ones, to ensure their website renders correctly for the majority of users before anything else.

However, these reports can also reveal hidden secrets about your users. For example, higher income households are more than three times as likely to have a tablet than lower income households, so you may want to investigate whether your tablet users are more affluent, and if so, what that means about their behavior and requirements. You’ll also want to consider how device usage of your audience will impact on your approach to responsive design.

As with all data, though, it’s important not to rely on stereotypes. Further research is required to validate any findings.

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