by Amanda Johnson
I’m often asked by clients why I believe so strongly in having real conversations with an audience. I’ve encountered some resistance to the concept of spending time and money on in-depth research when there are tools like Google Analytics or industry reports that offer quick snapshots of audiences. A client might think that they know their audience well enough that their own ideas for a product or service will suffice.
In my experience, a new digital project has the best chance of success if the design process has been informed by audience research. As a UX professional, I’ve been conducting this kind of research for years; previously, as a digital designer, it was a matter of creating what I liked based on what was trending at the time. Once I began observing the end user, I realised how powerful these insights - the ones you elicit by speaking face-to-face, and really listening to your customers - can be.
The value of insight
One of my favourite examples of the power of audience research was through the work we conducted with NOW That’s What I Call Music. NOW is a household name with a rich history of producing compilation albums every quarter. They were - and still are - excellent at selling CDs. It has remained central to their business, which has a very dynamic, multigenerational audience.
NOW wanted us to help them modernise their offering; their audience, which remains diverse, was evolving - it was becoming younger and more tech-savvy. They wanted to launch a music streaming service in an already crowded marketplace.
At the time, NOW didn’t have much insight into how their audience was engaging with their product beyond a CD sale. Through a stakeholder workshop, we identified the kind of questions our client had for their audience; everything from whether young people had the fiscal means to pay for a subscription if their parents weren’t ‘into’ NOW, to how users would spread the word about the service.
Over the course of several months, we visited the homes of families around Greater Manchester and South East London. The NOW audience spans generations; we discovered that it was a product that was being experienced together, as a family. Perhaps over dinner, or in the car — or overheard from different rooms.
As a music streaming service is a device-related product, it was really important for us to get a sense of how and where their audience was consuming music. We tracked how music filled their daily routines and observed their use of devices around the households; a DAB radio in the kitchen, a hand-me-down CD player in the youngest siblings bedroom, a tablet with a pair of headphones stuck in it on a messy bedroom floor.
This information was presented back to the client so that they too, could have a fly on the wall experience of these attitudes and behaviours
We also had lengthy conversations with different members of the family and listened to their stories. One I love in particular was about a teenage girl. Teenagers listen to songs over and over again, like they can’t live or breathe without them. And a week later, they’ll have forgotten it. One weekend, she listened to a song on repeat for five hours; her mother said it drove her absolutely crazy.
It’s a small story, but a fantastic vignette of a parent-child dynamic, and it teaches us something important. Perhaps if we were analysing data and we saw a song on repeat for five hours, we’d think there was an error with the data. But no, actually it’s an example of how one teenager - and likely others - consumes music. We use these observations to fuel the design process and create innovative features and interface ideas.
By learning more about the business, and its audience, we could advise NOW on how to create a service that supported one by serving the other. The information we gleaned from our audience research allowed us to really define the product, and gave NOW a lot of confidence in the development and design stage.
Light touch ways of listening
Of course, not every client requires the extent of audience research we conducted for NOW. We can answer these fundamental questions in other ways, including small-scale or remote interviews, polls and questionnaires; clients will still benefit from the insights we can learn.
Our involvement as a third party, existing outside the internal politics or arguments that stakeholders might have, is equally important. We can feedback an unbiased perspective of what the product should be based on what their audience has told us. We’re there to solve problems and do what’s right for both our client and their customer — and that’s a great position to be in.
Ultimately, it’s really empowering for our clients to be armed with rich data when they’re launching a service. As their advisors, it helps us to focus in on a cacophony of ideas and concepts and make informed recommendations on how this product should be designed.
This kind of research brings them closer to their audience - the end user - and gives their product the best chance of success.