We have a simple adage when it comes to understanding customer needs, desires, and challenges – if you want to know what they want, just ask. Yet too many organizations resist this seemingly obvious step, because they “know their customers.”

And in many cases they do. But they are also limited to knowing what their customers do within the confines of the experiences that they’ve created for them – experiences that often align more towards internal organizational structures and processes than to the optimal end-user experience.

Putting a focus on external user research at the start of a web redesign can help you establish a foundation of knowledge and actual user behaviour, upon which success can be built. And it can also give you the information and data you need to ensure that the user comes first – not internal silos and competing priorities.

Simply put, we’re all influenced by organizational and experiential biases. We believe we understand our customers based on the interactions we’ve had through the experiences we’ve created. And we may see some success. But are our customers truly thriving or are they succeeding in spite of the unintentional – and sometimes intentional – barriers that we’ve created.

Competing Priorities

At Northern we’ve done hundreds of engagements for websites across various business lines: higher education, health care, commerce/retail, and government. Invariably, the internal audiences will prioritize organizational beliefs and assumptions – like faculty profiles on university sites; donation buttons on hospital sites; and shopping behaviours they expect customers to follow.

But when we validate that against actual end users, the things internal audiences prioritize doesn’t align with what motivates end users or aligns with their actual behaviour patterns.. 

So why the disconnect?

Viewing Through an Internal Prism


Without validating against actual users, you run the risk of having your insights compromised by the fact that we’re viewing experiences through an internal prism. Internally, we know our processes, we know which departments handle what part of the transaction, and it is intuitive to us.

But your end user doesn’t need to – and shouldn’t – have to learn your organizational structure to effectively conduct a transaction. They want what they want when they want it, with a minimal amount of effort, and as few clicks or requirements as possible. And who better to tell you than the end user themselves.

The Value of Focus Groups

Focus groups are ideal ways to gather targeted insight for key stakeholders. And while the focus here is on the external, it can benefit your internal audiences. Too often, those in charge of the project don’t have complete insight into the experience that the people doing the actual work are having.

For example, during a focus group a few years ago, we spoke with senior management of a web property who felt everything with the content updating process was perfect. Yet, when we spoke to content curators, we heard a different story. To upload a photo, the employee had to take the content home, use personal technology and programs (because the company was not willing to upgrade), spend a day rendering and uploading the image, then take it back (on a flash drive) to the office, to spend another day uploading the file for publication. 

Senior management had no idea. All they knew was that images were being posted to the site. They didn’t know the pain points the user experienced.

And that’s an internal disconnect. When it comes to advocating on behalf of end users, there’s an increased risk for an external disconnect.

Focus groups, as part of a broader user research strategy, can help you understand not only the challenges users are having with your current experience, but can also help you isolate actual needs, desired functionality, and opportunities for growth. They can help you understand not only how your users are currently using your site, but, more importantly, how they want to use your site.

Part of a Larger Process

Focus groups can be done in isolation. Choosing a few key audiences, internally and externally, structuring them towards a specific outcome, and controlling the number of participants to ensure their efficacy will all help to provide solid results. And having a skilled facilitator who is well versed in active listening, able to adjust on the fly, and has the authority to delve into uncomfortable areas is integral to success. 

But focus groups are also best used as part of a larger process. They can complement broad-spectrum surveys to help isolate issues and expand upon them. They can allow you to receive valuable insights from key demographics like people with accessibility needs, or representatives of historically marginalized communities. And they can help you ensure that your internal assumptions actually match what those external desires are.

After all, when you look through an internally focused prism, things can get blurry. Asking the end users directly helps you put things into a much-clearer focus.