What is user research?

User research is the heart of CRO.  It aims to uncover your audience’s state of mind, needs, motivations, friction points and general behaviour through a series of quantitative and qualitative research methods.

This research helps you understand what your users need from your ecommerce website in terms of functionality, usability and appearance.

If you haven’t launched your website yet, you can still start this research in the prototyping phase. The findings will inform how the site should be built, saving you time and money in the long run.

We recommend continually researching before and after your website build, but we’ll focus on improving your live website using research insights.


Can I get away with not researching user behaviour?

It’s impossible for you (or even the most experienced optimisers) to know what works on your website without consulting your audience. Why? Because your users have unique behaviours when browsing your particular site.

Without comprehensive research, your website will leak sales and it’s unlikely that you’ll offer an experience that yields long-term retention.

Look at some of the most successful companies out there, like Apple, Amazon, Booking and Airbnb. Their success isn’t down to luck. It’s partly based on their willingness to admit they don’t have the answers to their biggest business questions, but their users do.


What types of research are most useful?

Although user research may seem daunting, there are numerous methods and tools at your disposal:


  • Digital analytics – Highly specific and detailed tracking of how users interact with any page or aspect of your site, as well as where they’re coming from.
  • Mouse tracking – Tracks how far down the page people scroll, where they hover their mice and elements they click on most or not at all.
  • Qualitative surveys (exit-intent surveys, customer surveys) – Questionnaires that reveal your audience’s motivations, frictions, fears and thought processes associated with shopping on your site.
  • Polls – Aim to collect users’ answers to certain questions about your website (e.g. the potential of a new feature you want to introduce or pain points on your checkout).
  • User testing – A series of tasks qualified users complete on your website while you record or observe their actions. This often uncovers usability issues.
  • Session replays – Anonymous recordings of real users’ screens and their comments as they naturally browse your website (with sensitive information hidden).
  • Heuristic evaluation – CRO experts evaluate the design of the website against established design principles.
  • UX competitor analysis – A comparison of your website and your competitors’ websites from a user behaviour and experience standpoint.
  • Technical analysis (site speed analysis, cross-device and cross-browser performance) – Analysis that highlights technical performance issues users encounter on specific pages, devices or browsers.


Screenshot of Convert, an A/B testing tool

Test results on Convert.com, an A/B testing tool 


Depending on budget and expertise, you can also use these techniques:

  • A/B testing – Creating data-driven hypotheses, testing incremental improvements on your website and monitoring the effects on user experience, conversion rate and sales.
  • Eye-tracking – Tracks the sequence in which users view your webpage elements, where they look first, how long they linger and areas they omit completely.
  • Form analytics – Track how users interact with forms like your checkout or sign-up forms (e.g. how quickly they fill them in, how many times they change a field they’ve already completed and which field gets the most validation errors).



What is user research? A screenshot from Formisimo, a form tracking tool

Formisimo, a form tracking tool

Where do I start?

A good optimiser will always follow a structured framework. This involves setting objectives for research, planning the methods that will be used, how they will be set up, and how insights will be prioritised and actioned upon.

You’ll probably discover tons of issues just by running a survey and watching a handful of user testing videos. However, you’ll miss out on the real wins if you implement changes in a random or subjective order. Instead, go for the changes with the highest potential first.


Tips for beginner researchers:

  • Before conducting any research, start out with a research plan and a list of questions you need answers to. Decide what you want to achieve. Always think in advance about how you’ll use the information you gather.
  • Don’t trust a single research method and always cross-validate with several others.
  • Don’t seek users’ opinions or ask them what they want or prefer. What people say they want doesn’t correlate with what they actually do. It’s better to ask people carefully thought-out questions about an experience they’ve already had. Give them a task that’s likely to provide your insight of interest and observe what they do instead.
  • Beware of bias. Frame your questions in an unbiased way to avoid getting users to give you the answer you want to hear. One way to minimise bias is framing some questions in a negative way and some in a positive way. For instance, “What was your biggest fear or concern about purchasing from us?” is better than “Was the price of this product problematic for you?”
  • Find out the circumstances in which particular segments browse your website. Are they on the bus, on their lunch break, in a noisy room or even browsing after a few pints? Try to replicate those conditions when running user testing.


The key is to conduct regular research and avoid reusing old data. Once you use an insight to make a website change, carefully measure the impact this has on users and sales. Then carry out more research to learn how you can iteratively enhance that aspect of the site.

Nina Mack

29th September 2017

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