How to understand your audience? Rob Mills reckons that gaining knowledge by research is only the half of it, and that the most important part is understanding what the results mean
This article first appeared in issue 232 of .net magazine – the world’s best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
I previously worked as part of an Audience Research team for the BBC. One of the key things I learnt that I have taken with me and applied in the web world is that there is a big difference between knowing and understanding.
This is true in many areas of our lives. Here are some examples:
- I know how to drive a car but I don’t understand how a car works
- I know what the holographic principle is but I certainly don’t understand it
- I know you’re upset but I don’t understand why
Knowing is just knowledge
Understanding something is being able to act on that knowledge and use it practically. Looking at the first example above in more detail, I was taught how to drive a car so I know about gears, pedals, signals and manoeuvres. I don’t understand the mechanics of the car though when I am pushing those pedals. Nor do I care, so long as my actions allow the car to get me safely from A to B.
Albert Einstein sums up the distinction between the two quite nicely: ‘any fool can know, the point is to understand’. Never is this more true than when creating something for a specific audience in mind, because you might know who they are but do you understand them?
Analytics can tell you that you had 28,000 unique visitors to your site last month, but it’s another thing to understand their behaviours, lifestyles, media consumption, expenditure, routines, likes and dislikes. It’s good to keep tabs on the data, but how can you target what you’re creating to ‘28,000 unique visitors’.
We create for people, not numbers
The more we understand, the better informed our decisions will be during the project lifespan and that’s why any project, regardless of budget, should allow for a research phase at the start. Even if the results of that research confirm what was assumed about the audience it is worth investing time to get that confirmation. Chances are you will learn a few new things along the way too.
How you gain this understanding of your audience may be dictated by budgets, business objectives and resources available, but the more we know about our audience the better we understand them. Asking questions provides added insight and turns numbers into something more real, whether this be personas, use cases or profiles.
Previously I’ve been amazed at how many people involved in content creation, storytelling and editorial didn’t actually understand their audience, across all platforms. They knew about the audience in terms of viewers, listeners or users but they never got beneath the top level data. They may have had 360,000 viewers for example, but knew nothing more about them as individuals.
Asking questions provides insight and turns numbers into something more real
This was baffling to me. You cannot target people if you don’t understand them. You would probably still reach some of the intended audience, but you also risk offending others without an understanding of them, particularly if there are cultural contexts to be considered.
The trouble is the boundaries between knowing and understanding can often be blurred. It’s easy to think you understand something when you have observed or read something many times. That regular exposure doesn’t mean an increased level of understanding though, it’s just reinforcing what you already know.
Don’t just take your client’s word for it either. They too may assume they understand their users, but without any data to support these assumptions, they are just that, assumptions. As soon as you have evidence, the decisions you make during the project will have more conviction.
Investing time to move from knowing to understanding means you can target audiences efficiently and effectively. Find out what level of understanding you need for the project in hand, gather the data and information, gain the insight and turn it into targeted solutions.