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9 ways to smash UX on a small budget

A focus on user experience is vital for a great product. Unfortunately, the catch-22 is that small businesses – a valuable part of our community – need to grow online and so still need to offer a relatively sleek experience to their users. However, there are ways to deliver a great UX for clients working with smaller budgets, which we'll explore here. We'll also look at some web design tools that can help you out.

I once believed that a UX was a catch-all improvement for everything. That was until I started working with small businesses, where brand recognition and volume of traffic is lower; navigation, content and audience segments are simpler; and objectives are easier to distil. It became clear that the balance of return on investment against the cost of UX as a percentage increase in sales was negligible.

UX increases performance by increments. Where traffic is high this generates considerable revenue on low percentage increases – but drop that traffic to less than 5000 visits a month and the sums just don’t add up. In this article, I'll run through nine ways to grab the low-hanging fruit in terms of UX.

01. Learn from bigger competitors

Big businesses tend to spend considerable sums on user experience, so do some research on competitors and large corporations in your client’s line of business. Select five to carry out a competitor comparison, and try and get a good idea of the dos and don’ts. There’s often treasure to be found in these big brands' online reviews as well.

Crayon is a great free tool to help with this. It showcases businesses (organised by sector or keyword) alongside previous versions of each website, so you can explore how they have improved over time.

02. Get UX experience

Employing a designer who has plenty of experience in hands-on UX is a great asset to a small businesses and a key USP in your pitch. There are always ways to practice, study and shadow UX professionals, so do your homework.

03. Use Google Analytics

With Google Analytics, we can gather information about customers' behaviour, location, devices, user flow and actions, without having to talk to them. There are plenty of ways to use this to improve your UX. For example, you can figure out where users are bailing – if it is halfway through a purchase or action, then what’s stopping them? Even knowing which blog posts get the most visits can help shape your client’s content strategy. A decent web hosting service can also provide you with site analytics.

04. Look at heatmaps

If you can’t watch a person using your site then heatmaps are a great alternative. Free sites such as Smartlook allow you to add tracking code to provide important information about user behaviour. Just remember to list them in the site’s cookie policy.

05. Organise a focus group

Everyone likes a party, especially one where they get to air their views. Inviting five customers over with their laptops for a ‘lunch hour’, with nice food and perhaps a little going-home goodie, can result in some remarkable discoveries. It also helps create loyalty and a feel-good factor for your client.

Plan meticulously and be clear in advance what will be involved and why. Allocate half an hour for the customers to individually complete set tasks on the website, documenting how they are doing and what they feel. Follow this up with lunch and a half-hour group discussion. Make sure sure you keep detailed notes of your process safe in cloud storage.

06. Ask the customers

Most businesses have a mailing list, so why not ask their customers? Set five simple questions that will open up a discussion rather than just garnering yes/no answers. Think carefully what will give you most insight into the problems you are trying to solve. Mention all replies will be entered into a prize draw, creating goodwill whilst receiving valuable feedback from real users. To distil findings from your replies use a tool such as Survey Monkey.

07. Increase conversions

Multivariate tests (MVT), conversion rate optimisation (CRO), and A/B testing are powerful tools in a UX designer's toolbox. But if you don’t have the traffic then the results will be inconclusive. Still, there are gains to be made by learning from the above methods and implementing small changes measured through analytics and heat mapping to increase visitor traction.

08. Focus on first impressions

If the website doesn’t have a lot of traffic or you are still in the design phase, UseabilityHub’s Five Second Tests are a great little tool to get a snapshot of what people think. Ask a few short questions and get users' gut responses. 

09. Sketch!

Website mockups are a key stage in figuring out how users will interact with a site. These approaches can be used for a variety of UX tasks. What pages are needed, what your client’s goals are and what customers are looking for can all be brainstormed and sketched out with a pencil and pad to create a very usable site map, page map, actions, content structure and user flow. Building a site but don't want to code? Try a website builder.

This article was originally published in net, the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers. Buy issue 308 or subscribe

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Abi is a UX consultant, visual experience designer and speaker specialising in growing small businesses online.