One of the most important but maybe not always obvious digital design principles is this: "You are not your user." As humans, we have a tendency to falsely believe that others out there understand, perceive, and act just like we would in a given situation. It’s ego. We’ve all got it. But in the work of UX or design, it’s not particularly helpful. Holding on to the belief that we are our audience during a creative process leads to a phenomenon called self-referential design, meaning that products aren’t user-centric, but rather built based on our own personal experiences and preferences.
At Edgar Allan, we’ve found that audience research is a great way to challenge our assumptions by getting a deep understanding of the people for whom we are designing.
How does audience research help design?
In a design context, audience research –often also known as user research– aims to support the strategic design and development of products and services that provide real value and truly resonate with people. Audience research guides the design process to ensure that we are building the right thing. Note that this is one step beyond the traditional marketing approach to audience research that tries to understand an established or projected audience by focusing purely on demographic information, buying motivations, and preferences to better inform business decisions about a target market.
The reality is that users have desires, needs, and motivations that come from a specific context that go beyond general demographic characteristics. Understanding that context is key to uncovering the obstacles that keep users from achieving their goals. And the money shot: Those goals are the unmet needs that your design should be aiming to solve.
When we do audience research through a design lens, we focus on analyzing users and their context to drive design decisions by developing a shared understanding around:
- User characteristics: Who they are.
- User context: What they do, as well as when and where they do it.
- User mindsets: Why they do it (their needs, motivations, and goals).
- User experiences: How they do it (any pain points, ease of use, expectations, or moments of delight).
Why take a design approach to audience research?
When you are designing a digital experience, most of the time, you don’t only have one audience to design for but many. Think about our site, for example, Edgar Allan is a brand & content-focused Webflow agency, if we were to think about the different audiences visiting our site we can think of the following, just to name a few:
- Potential clients
- Current clients
- Job seekers
- Design practitioners wanting to learn more about Webflow
While all these people may share similar demographic characteristics – they may all be tech savvy, female, in their 30s, living in the US – their context and the goal they will each try to achieve when visiting the Edgar Allan site are entirely different. Understanding business priorities around each of these groups will help us decide who to focus our research efforts on and how to convey their voices so their needs and expectations are reflected in everything we create.
Now, how do we conduct audience research?
Choosing your methodology of collecting information about your target audience will depend on a variety of different factors, ranging from what it is you need to know and the access you have to users, to where you are in the design process. Here are a few quick tips.
- Identify what you need to know about your users
Choose quantitative and qualitative methods to, respectively, unveil what might be happening as users take action or make choices as a larger group, and why audiences might behave the way they do. Or choose a mix of both.
- Assess the kind of access you have to users
Will you be able to reach audience members 1:1? Work with them in a group? Will they be available to speak with at all? Would desk research work better? A poll or survey? Understanding the kind of access – if any – we will have to users to conduct research is another factor to weigh in deciding how to do audience research.
- Understand where you are in the design process
Understanding users’ needs is important throughout the entire design process, but the stage we are in will require us to learn different things from them and use different methods to get those answers. For example, during discovery we might want to learn about our audience. In exploration, we might need to explore user needs to set us up for design success. In testing, we’ll want to observe our users engaging with design and learn from their choices. Finally, in listening, we’ll want to analyze how successful we were by analyzing audience response.
Want to know more about our approach to research? Check out our expanded blog on the topic.
Audience research is just one of the ways Edgar Allan can help you on your project journey! Check out our blog to learn more about our perspective on this topic and more.