I recently wrote a fairly lengthy article for 24 Ways on Bringing Research and Design Closer Together. I talked about how it's tough for a modern web designer who needs to keep up with the latest developments in the industry. There are still plenty of specialists who just 'design', just 'develop' or just do 'ux' but there are plenty more hybrids who do a bit of everything. Particularly with the advent of responsive design and the need to move away from drawing pictures of websites to rapid prototyping; learning code is pretty much essential for designers of all disciplines. The main focus of my article was that designers should also become researchers and get stuck in and do their own research.
Yesterday I listened to The Big Web Show - Jeffrey's guest this week was Sarah Parmenter and they talked about Sarah's experiences of being drafted in to consult on projects where there was little or no research or data to inform design decisions. She compared this to two recent projects where she'd been given oodles of data to wade through as she was the only person able to do it. The companies she mentioned were News International and STV, both large media organisations with large audiences. It was great to hear that they had audience research readily available but what horrified me, was that there was no-one internally to analyse it and work out the story hidden in the data. Sarah is a very capable designer and I have no doubt that she relished the challenge and did a brilliant job of wading through all that information - she talked about some of her recommendations to the client based on the work she did. What is horrifying about this story is that it sounded as if there was little or no engagement on the client side with this audience data. It was seen as just 'data'. A commodity. Something to hand over to a designer. Someone else's problem.
I had the enormous privilege to start working at the BBC over a decade ago, when there was a huge focus on the audience throughout the entire organisation. One of the BBC's values at the time was 'the audience is at the heart of everything the BBC does.' In fact there was a big restructure across the organisation at the time and Marketing, Communications and Audiences was centralised for the first time. The Audiences Team were responsible for bringing audience research and insight into every part of the BBC. Commissioning, editorial strategy, programme making, marketing, comms and so on. Everything was audience led. Times have got tougher and broadcasting has changed but I have no doubt that this is still the way things work at the BBC (I've been gone 5 years now!).
Knowing what your audience, customers or users need and want is crucial for a business. Making decisions using gut instinct alone can only get you so far. Making decisions based on experience and acquired knowledge can get you a lot further. Making decisions using a combination of the above with the added bonus of research and insight can result in sheer brilliance. Having a clear focus on the bigger picture can help with even the smallest of decisions. If everyone working across an organisation, big or small, is aware of the audience strategy and has the same audience goals, everyone can work to the same plan rather than work against the overall strategy.
Design without research and strategy is just art or self expression. Designers who 'design' without audience strategy as a starting point and without research and testing to build their knowledge of difference audience groups, aren't making the best decisions. Content creators who produce content without a clear audience strategy are often missing the mark. If different parts of a business are designing for and creating products and content for different people without a clear strategy or plan, the whole business can lack coherence.
So, next time you start a new project or start a dialogue with a new client, your first question should be 'What is your audience strategy?' Keep that dialogue going throughout the whole process and you're onto a winner.