Audiences, Outcomes, and Determining User Needs
Issue № 345

Audiences, Outcomes, and Determining User Needs

Every website needs an audience. And every audience needs a goal. Advocating for end-user needs is the very foundation of the user experience disciplines. We make websites for real people. Those real people are able to do real things. Everyone is happy.

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But, it’s not really that easy, is it?

The issue, of course, is that we cannot advocate for those whom we do not know—or, even worse, those whom we assume we know. So we go to the source: we interview, we learn, and we determine who, exactly, these mystery users are. In doing so, we answer the two most important questions of the discovery stage: who are our audiences, and what do they want from our website?

Then—and only then—can we begin the process toward better content.

Defining the process#section1

End users are a funny thing. They begin as amorphous blobs of assumed stereotypes. As we learn more about them, they become more refined. They develop characteristics and quirks. The more we learn about the end user, the closer we get to a sort of Pinocchio scenario: they become Real Users!

The process of creating Real Users is what we at Blend call our Audiences and Outcomes process. It happens before any other part of the project, and is based on C. David Gammel’s book Online and On Mission, in which Gammel pushes the need to identify and prioritize audiences before you develop any strategy.

In this case, Gammel defines an audience as:

Any group of people with some measurable characteristic in common which influences how relevant and significant they are to your specific outcomes.

Likewise, Gammel defines an outcome as:

A measurable change, action or behavior that you wish a visitor to take or experience.

In other words, just stating a goal is not enough. Outcomes must be measurable, otherwise they’re not goals—they’re aspirations. Without considering how an outcome will be measured, we cannot accurately represent the benefits—or the viability—of a user outcome.

Finally, we use audiences and outcomes to create user personas. We use these personas until the project is complete. Because we can’t run every decision past a field of actual end users, we rely on personas to do the work for us. They become our friends. We refer to them by name in meetings. It would all be very weird, if it wasn’t so necessary.

If you’re confused about how this differs from your standard discovery meeting, with people meeting in a room and answering questions and all of that, the answer is: it doesn’t. Not really. You may already do something like this without being so deliberate, or you may define audiences and outcomes elsewhere in your process.

That’s cool. We’ve found that tackling audiences and outcomes at the very beginning makes our content inventory more relevant (by allowing us to pair pages with audiences) and saves a step in our qualitative audit (by giving us context for content needs).

What’s more, it clarifies our goals from day one. This clarification is important. For example, if we’re building a site to sell mail-order diapers, we can’t just say, “We’re building a diaper delivery site, and mothers will come to the site to buy diapers, and so let’s start writing copy.” I’m not a mother. And if I was, I’m certainly not EVERY mother. I know damn well that fathers and other caregivers will come to the site, too. So if I move forward with the diaper-buying mother stereotype in mind, I’m doing a disservice to a giant percentage of the site’s users.

We are not the audience. We can only assume what our user thinks. Which is where the audiences and outcomes process comes into play, allowing us to narrow down who the user REALLY is through stakeholder input, persona development, and persona confirmation.

Buy-in: everyone wants to play#section2

These proxies serve an added purpose: they help us get buy-in and help us back up assumptions. Erin Kissane sums it up perfectly in The Elements of Content Strategy, when she says:

The personas or other user proxies that you or your colleagues have created are the best backup you could hope for. Return to those tools when you need to validate opinions—yours or someone else’s.

By pulling stakeholders into a room and getting them to talk about their product, their audiences, their issues, etc., we’re giving them a way to buy in. No longer is this a consultant-driven process—it’s a company-driven process, where the consultant serves more as facilitator than dictator. As I’ve mentioned before, we don’t have all of the answers, and we do our clients a disservice by assuming we do.

When stakeholders get involved early, they are less likely to hold things in. They’re also less likely to object to changes in their content or process because, after all, we’ve all agreed on our audiences.

So, how do we do it?

The audiences and outcomes process#section3

Let’s assume that within your methodology, you define audiences and outcomes at the very beginning of a project. It’s how we throw a project into context. It gives us a high-end view of who we’re dealing with and provides background for the qualitative content audit. It’s a “getting to know you” period of two or three weeks, broken into three steps:

  • Step 1: The discovery meeting
  • Step 2: User interviews
  • Step 3: Project deliverables: audiences, outcomes, and personas

The discovery meeting#section4

There’s one goal: to get this group talking. Invite a small number of people—five to seven—and make sure someone from the front line is there. Ask them to let go of preconceptions. If an executive is present, make sure they don’t take over the conversation.

From your side, make sure you have two people. One will lead discussion, the other will document the discussion and provide an extra brain to ask and answer questions.

The meeting should be an open forum for discussing the website’s needs and goals. Schedule no more than an hour, but don’t be surprised if it goes a little longer. Begin the meeting by introducing everyone, introducing the process, and explaining how it fits into the overall site plan.

Bring big markers and whiteboards and anything to get ideas up in front of the group. Then, make two huge spaces for the following headers: AudiencesOutcomes.

Then it’s time to start asking questions.

The questions#section5

These are the questions that we use at Blend to define audiences and outcomes. They aren’t law. In fact, we’ve never made it all the way through this list. (Note: you’ve probably seen some of these questions asked elsewhere. Of course you have—we created this list, like any good list, by stealing and adapting ideas for our own use.)

Audiences#section6

  • Who do you feel are your site’s audiences?
  • What are the demographics of these audiences?
  • How comfortable with technology is this audience?
  • Who is currently visiting the site? What makes their visit a success in their eyes? In yours?
  • Who else is competing for their attention?

Outcomes#section7

  • What do you want to persuade your audience to do?
  • What assumptions do you make concerning your audiences? Example: do you assume your audience is of a certain socioeconomic group, or that they are familiar with certain aspects of your organization?
  • What drives your business, and how does your audience help achieve positive results?
  • What metrics do you want to keep track of?

Company voice#section8

  • What is your company’s ultimate mission? (Not a mission statement, but a more organic, real-world one-sentence answer to “Why do you do what you do?”)
  • What message do you need to get across?
  • What is the company’s voice and personality?
  • What has worked in the past? What hasn’t worked in the past? What were the stumbling blocks?
  • What attributes does your company have that helps to gather attention—i.e., “Our company is nationally known,” “Our company employs former movie stars,” “Our company is well respected in the field.”
  • What topics can we take advantage of? Example: if you are an automobile manufacturer, are there government rebates we can promote?
  • What topics are off limits?

Methods#section9

  • How do you currently communicate with your audiences? How often? (Related: can we have copies of your past materials?)
  • Who creates the content?
  • How does your audience prefer to communicate with you?
  • What other functionality will you need?

Content management#section10

  • What is the current content workflow?
  • Who currently creates content?
    • Who will write it in the future?
    • Who approves content?
    • What stumbling blocks are in place that make it difficult for the content to get published?
  • Who in the company connects with customers most naturally?

As you push your way through a group’s initial fear of discussion, new questions will flow naturally. The specific questions aren’t necessary, as long as you remember to:

  1. Ask the client who their audiences are and what those audiences want.
  2. Listen for clues that expose secondary audiences.
  3. Dive into those clues. Make them work. Ask follow-up questions. Get people talking.

To create an extremely basic example, imagine we’re doing a meeting with a fictional airline: On-Time Air. After a very general discussion, we’ve got this written on the whiteboard:

Audiences:

  • Passengers
  • Airports

Outcomes:

  • Find accurate flight information
  • Book a flight easily
  • Learn about baggage fees
  • Locate gates and flight times

Digging into the audiences, we ask what else passengers look for. One person mentions that, yesterday, someone asked for a chart depicting the airline’s on-time percentage. This may not be a high-level outcome, but it reminds us that when something newsworthy occurs, the press may look for information on the airline. When a potentially damaging article is about to come out, it’s the airline’s policy to let its employees know ahead of time. What about new employees? What about future employees? How do they apply?

As you can see, this line of thinking led us to three new audiences (the press; new and future airline employees) and three new outcomes (finding company news and information, looking for explanations on the airline’s problems, and locating job applications).

What’s more, we can start to see sub-audiences: employees could be separated by type (pilots, front-line staff at airport desks, those who take phone reservations) or by status (new, potential, veteran). What about the separation between a current passenger—those who have tickets, and a potential passenger—those looking for tickets? Some audiences will share outcomes. Both a pilot and a current passenger may be looking for related or identical information.

NOTE: You’ll notice that those last groups of questions aren’t really audience/outcome related. That’s okay. We’re opening up here, and your stakeholders will be in the mood to talk. This gives us a chance to grab a little extracurricular research. Taking Tiffani Jones Brown’s Making Things Hard post a step further, we’re making things easier by asking hard questions at a time when the client is more receptive to those questions.

User interviews#section11

The initial strategy meeting is designed to help determine whom the site is for and the goals that need to be addressed; in other words, the meeting shapes the audiences for the site, as well as the desired outcomes related to each audience. The next step is to talk to actual site users to determine whether these audiences and outcomes are accurate.

This happens early in the process for a reason: we need to know who the user is, and we want to use their opinions throughout the project. So we ask our clients for a list of contacts, and we talk to past customers. Or, we solicit opinions from a related industry group. Regardless, we ask questions.

For example, if we’re talking to an audience of building managers, we could ask:

  • How do you secure funding for a project?
  • How many companies are you required to look at during a bid?
  • Who provides post-build service for a project?

But we could also ask questions that help gauge an audience’s personal and technological habits:

  • What kind of mobile phone do you use?
  • Where do you live and how large is your organization?
  • How often are you on the internet for non-work purposes?

Then, we compare their needs and perceived outcomes with the ones our client mentioned. If they match, then awesome. If not, even more awesome: time to bring it back to the client and say “This is what people want.” We’re already learning, people!

Project deliverables#section12

Whether we like it or not, a huge part of content strategy is delivering documents, and the audiences and outcomes process is no different.

First, prioritize each audience and assign numbers to each user outcome. Because every audience could make a case for being the most important, it’s up to you and your client to determine which audiences are really the most important. Not only does this provide a handy cheat-sheet for solving design hierarchy problems (think: should our home page focus on existing members or new members) it also helps you determine which personas will get more space at the theoretical persona table.

(Not to mention: these numbers will come in handy during content auditing, where you can match content with goals. Saying, “Outcome 3.2a” is a lot shorter and easier than typing out the entire outcome.)

You might need to split some audiences into more manageable categories. These “sub-audiences” share the same overall goals as the parent audience, but feature some additional needs and goals.

For example: A physician’s website may have three major audiences—referring physicians, patients, and staff. Patients could be further split into three categories: new patients, current patients, and family members of patients—all three will have the same overall goals as the patient audience, but with additional goals dependent upon further classification.

Giving the document structure#section13

In the beginning, the structure of the audiences and outcomes document might look like this:

  1. Introduction
  2. Summary of findings, including user interview findings
  3. Audiences and outcomes (example below)

Audience 1: Customers#section14

Customers are those who are either thinking about purchasing an airline ticket or who have already purchased an airline ticket. They are the main source of income for the airline, and represent the airline’s most important audience.

We can split customers into two distinct sub-audiences: potential customers and current customers.

Sub-Audience 1.a: Potential Customers

Potential customers are those who have yet to purchase a ticket. They’re visiting the site because they’re interested in traveling, and may be researching either current ticket prices, flight schedules or both. Their mindset depends on context—they could be voluntarily researching a trip for leisure, or they could be locked into a trip and simply need the cheapest or best flight.

  • 1a.1 – Find and compare flights by price, date, and flight details.
  • 1a.2 – Purchase desired flights with little resistance.
  • 1a.3 – Locate and understand flight rules—check-in time, weight restrictions, etc.

Sub-Audience 1.b: Current Customers

Current customers are those who have already paid for their ticket. For the most part, they are no longer comparing prices—they’re on the site to confirm existing flight information or make changes. Research at this point has shifted from discovery to confirmation.

  • 1b.1 – Access flight and ticket information.
    • 1b.2 – Contact On-Time Air for flight changes or questions.
    • 1b.3 – Locate and understand flight rules—check-in time, weight restrictions, etc.

Notice that both potential and current customers share the outcome “Locate and understand flight needs.” This is common. Audience desires always overlap, though there can be differences in how we measure these outcomes.

Speaking of measurement…

Making things measurable#section15

Because outcomes should be measurable, we need to bring analytics into the mix. Determining these metrics helps us understand what’s important to the site and, more importantly, how we determine whether a content plan is working as imagined.

We’ll take our original document framework and add these metrics to the desired outcomes. For example, for desired outcome 1b.1 above, you may say:

  • 1b.1 – Access flight and ticket information.
    • Metric #1 – Lower page views per task.
    • Metric #2 – Fewer customer service calls for flight and ticket information.

You can see that there are two avenues to measure better access to flight and ticket information. One is to measure how many pages a user goes through before finally finding the information. The other is to track customer service calls to see if the number of calls for flight and ticket information decreases.

Much like the outcomes themselves presented some level of overlap, your metrics will overlap as well. Don’t worry. That’s normal.

Erik Peterson’s The Big Book of Key Performance Indicators is a good place to help determine which metrics to use for each outcome.

Project personas#section16

With metrics in place, the next step is to create personas for the major audiences.

The persona process has been well documented by nearly everyone, it seems. At Blend, our three favorite resources are these:

The number of personas you create depends on the number of unique audiences you’ve determined. In the case of On-Time Air, let’s say we have six unique audiences, one of which is the 1.a: Potential Customer. We would then create a persona that represents a potential customer:

Martin Hunt#section17

Age: 46
Occupation: Architect
Family: Married with one child (19)
Education: Architecture degree from St. Cloud State University

Habits: Martin uses the internet every day, but has never been a heavy user. He relies on aides for most of his online information and research, and spends a good chunk of time answering email, but outside of that he’s a novice. He has a Facebook account and has signed up for Twitter, but has never posted. He has a Blackberry.

Assumptions: Martin is wary of the unofficial nature of bargain travel sites like Kayak.com and Priceline.com. He prefers to order tickets directly from the airline. Because he lives in Minneapolis, he must often fly Delta, but he is increasingly interested in On-Time Air’s direct flights from Minneapolis to Orlando and Minneapolis to Las Vegas.

Martin doesn’t care about price if the difference between two airlines is close—he’s more concerned about how comfortable he’ll be on the flight. He values relationships, and assumes the airline best positioned to win his business will be the one that does the best job of selling a unique experience. At the same time, he has already racked up a considerable amount of airline miles with Delta.

“I would rather fly comfortable than fly cheap, but I won’t accept an exorbitant price.”

Naturally, the details will be different depending on the project. And remember: personas are made of real people. All that questioning and interviewing you did earlier in the process? That helps inform and define your personas. For now. Until you do more interviewing and your personas become stronger and more agile. Better cooks, even.

Look at the personas you’ve created. Do they accurately represent the outcomes you’ve determined? In writing them, have new outcomes turned up? Go back to the beginning and make sure everything levels out. Your audiences and outcomes determine your personas, and your personas should validate your audiences and outcomes.

You can do one of two things in terms of deliverables—you can add these to the Audiences and Outcomes document, or you can present them on their own. We feel that they are so closely tied to audiences and outcomes that we include them in that document.

Next steps#section18

With your audiences and outcomes in place, you no longer have any excuse for not knowing what your project’s goals are. The document informs the content audit, where you can begin assigning relevancy to every page on an existing site. Every piece of content on the site should relate back to a specific outcome, and if not, it needs to be reviewed for relevance.

From there, the audiences and outcomes will help you choose participants for user interviews and user testing. Find a group willing to help you through the entire process, and you’ve got a valuable resource for not only testing prototypes, but also for performing card sorts, confirming IA tree testing, and serving as a de facto advisory board on the subject.

Finally, the audiences and outcomes help remind you what really matters in web design and development: the end user. We place an overview of a project’s audiences and outcomes at the beginning of every wireframe, style guide, and specifications document. Doing so gives us easy access to our user’s needs. After all—without the end user, we’d have no one to impress from here on out.

12 Reader Comments

  1. “Every website needs an audience. And every audience needs a goal.”

    I think this is an error in thinking. PRODUCTS need an audience. PRODUCTS solve a problem. Websites – for the most part are just the storefront or marketing medium.

    I think personas are dangerous to your business and are too frequently used in the wrong place. This creates a host of problems rather than bring message clarification to your target audience.

    I just spent a week on our website, A Better User Experience, arguing against the use of personas for most small businesses.

    Heretical you say?

    Part 1 (Signal Not Stratification): http://bit.ly/wIZdD1
    Part 2:(Be the Bieber): http://bit.ly/yrauRk

    My point is simple: Websites follow established paradigms. They help people buy, sell, consume, share, or return your product or service.

    And we have established paradigms for how to build these mechanisms.

    Personas don’t use checkouts differently. There’s an optimal way to build them.

    What IS unique to different personas are the problems that your product solves.

    Think of it like this.

    I’m a bank. And I want to appeal to three customers: individuals, investors, and businesses. The bank creates different instruments for those personas.

    Then they build a website that fulfills all the needs of those personas.

    And that’s a job well done.

    That’s because personas were brought to the table during product development. Not website building.

    I feel like it’s necessary to point this out because doing it wrong hurts your business.

    Look at the link for Part 2 above. I go thorough an example of a financial software app that got all of their messaging wrong because they appealed to their personas’ differences rather than their common points.

    Ultimately, that’s what I recommend: One strong signal. One clear message.

    If you use personas at the product level, this will be easy to do. If you use personas at the messaging level, in my experience, it’s just muddying the waters.

    -Ben Snyder
    abetteruserexperience.com
    @BUXofficial

  2. If the person is very much similar to us, you can trust him involuntarily. It is therefore important in the development of the web design to identify the distinctive features of the target audience of the website to speak with it in the same language.

  3. I agree with @BUXofficial that personas can be extremely useful in product development (and srsly, how many more products without an audience do we need?). But I would argue strongly against the idea that they somehow “muddy the water” when used for web work.

    It’s not just that different audience segments will want different products, but different audience segments may want to learn about the product in different ways. They may each bring different expectations, questions, prior knowledge, level of detail required, etc. This doesn’t mean we build five different shopping carts; this means we consider the experience through each persona’s point of view and make sure the UX we’ve so carefully planned will work for them.

    Anyhow, Corey, thank you for the very thorough and relatable examples of what so often gets truncated, glossed over, or skipped.

  4. @BUXofficial

    Personas don’t dictate giant changes in established behavior. They instead serve to represent the people we are creating things for. Personas are not perfect. Neither are people. That’s why they’re effective tools.

    That’s the biggest thing: they’re tools. They can be used incorrectly. So can user research. So can established paradigms, actually. (I can simply ape Amazon’s checkout process, but that won’t do me any good if I don’t know how site users respond to the nuances of my client’s product.)

    Good personas are based on real user interviews. They help personify user research. They help us keep in mind the people we’re writing and designing and developing for. They aren’t gods.

    The example website in your second blog post isn’t bad because of the personas. The personas didn’t force the designer or writer to create seven different messages – the designer or writer failed to understand how to synthesize the information the personas offered, which is to say they failed to create any kind of message hierarchy, tone hierarchy, audience hierarchy, etc.

    So I think maybe the real message is, “Understand the role personas play,” not, “Personas are awful and will ruin your work.”

    Personas help us understand that, indeed, different people come to the website looking for different things. They help inform writing and design. You mention Coke in your article, but fail to mention how Coke also has employed different messages for different audiences. There are polar bears, sure. But there are also celebrities. There are jingles. There are sports sponsorships. Each of these messages appeal to a different audience. And it’s the mix of these different messages that makes the brand what it is.

    When a user lands on a website, the goal isn’t for them to see one message. The goal is to see the one message that matters most to them.

  5. Thanks for writing such a thorough and thought-provoking article.

    Your stakeholder questions really piqued my interest. We facilitate many interactive discussions and activities with our clients in order to engage them and learn from them. I find your Audiences/Outcomes format to be really useful and look forward to applying it!

  6. “So I think maybe the real message is, ‘Understand the role personas play,’ not, ‘Personas are awful and will ruin your work.'”

    I think you hit the nail on the head there. I thought about that after I wrote my articles… it’s not that personas are bad, it’s just that they’re often misused.

    They do serve a valuable purpose but I think it’s at the product stage and not at the web design stage.

    And I think that’s why I got my hair up against them in the first place – they’re pitched as a tool for UX designers but they’re really not. They’re a tool for product design people.

    Now it’s true that there’s commonality between website goals and business goals but one precedes the other. And you can argue that when taken in the context of an app environment, they are one and the same (and I wouldn’t argue with you)…

    But I have yet to find the case where personas are valuable outside of the product development stage.

    And for what it’s worth, we do a podcast every Monday at abetteruserexperience.com. If you’d be up for it, we’d love to have you on to talk about personas. DM me on Twitter (BUXofficial), contact me on the site, or reply here if you’re interested. It’ll be fun. 🙂

  7. @BUXofficial – I’ll get a hold of you on the site and we can talk about podcastin’ it up.

  8. This is a subject that I’ve always been aware of but never really had the opportunity to get to grips with it properly. Partly due to not currently working with anyone who knows more than me, and also lots of confusing and diverse methods and explanations.

    This article summed an approach up really well for me to understand and absorb. I feel I have a better understanding as to why it is so important when building a site. Definitely something I’m going to take forward and look into more.

    Thanks 🙂

    Adam

  9. No doubt content of your website or blog is one of the most important factors that determines the ranking of your website on search engine result page. A thorough and meticulous content strategy could help you ge an edge over your competitors. Thanks for offering such an informative content on content and content strategy. Liked the way you presented whole of the article in a concise as well as elaborate manner.

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