Don't reduce your audience to a stereotype

One of the biggest dangers as a web designer or website owner is to stereotype your users and so misjudge their needs and attitudes.

I am currently speaking at a conference in Oslo, Norway. It has been a great conference and from what I can gather the first of its kind in the country. It is always so encouraging to see the web community coming together for an event like this.

The conference organisers have done a great job, especially as it is their first conference on this scale. However, two things beyond the control of the organisers have given me pause for thought. I have found myself marvelling at how easily we put people (our users in particular) into predefined stereotyped boxes.

Marketing to the geek stereotype

My first thought was about the host of the event. This is a job I have done myself a number of times and one I am doing again at the upcoming Future of Web Design conference in New York. Essentially it involves introducing the various speakers, engaging in a little light banter with the audience and generally ensuring everything runs smoothly.

Often this job is done by the conference organiser. However as in the cases where I have hosted events, the organisers of FrontEnd 2010 decided it would be more sensible to get somebody to do the job for them.

Although I haven’t asked, I would guess that the person they chose is some form of professional entertainer. He is relaxed, confident and obviously enjoys being on stage. However, he knows nothing about the web or the web design community. Worse still he has done no research into either the industry, speakers or most importantly audience. He has instead made massive assumption.

It is obviously that in his mind all ‘geeks’ are all young lads who like to think about sex and will enjoy innuendo and risky humour. His comments have often been massively inappropriate despite an audience made up of a considerable number of women.

Geek thinking about code and sex

Vlue, Shutterstock

Was this the organisers fault? Not at all. After all if you employee a professional you expect them to know the audience and do their research.

The second example of misjudging the audience was was made by one of the sponsors. With the same misconception of geeks this sponsor felt that the best way to attract people to his booth was to drape it with scantily clad woman and hand out semi-erotic calendars.

Misjudging your audience has wide reaching implications

It’s not that I have anything against half naked women or even the occasional risky joke. My problem is that they both misjudged the audience and damaged their own reputations (or in the case of the host that of the conference itself).

Also they have perpetuated a stereotype that is already preventing women from entering the sector. As a community we have worked hard to squash sexism and encourage more female speakers, bloggers and contributors. Like their male counterpart women have a lot to offer the web design community. However, they still seem to have to fight against the immaturity of both the community itself and outside influences like our host and sponsor.

Alienating the influencers

I guess it could be argued that although these approaches maybe in bad taste they work from a marketing perspective. It is certainly true that the host did make some people laugh and the booth girls make their sponsor the most memorable.

booth babes

iJammin, Flickr

However, ultimately the benefits are outweighed by the damage to their brands. It certainly did not go down well with the speakers (both male and female) who felt that these people undermined all that had been achieved in creating a favourable environment for women. Any marketeer will tell you that the last people you should alienate are the influencers who have a voice and audience within the community you are trying to reach. In short don’t piss off the speakers ;-)

How does this apply to me?

So what is the lesson here? My aim is not to berate these individuals but merely to draw a lesson for those of us who are trying to reach an audience whether online or off.

The lesson is simple. Make sure you really know your audience and don’t simply reduce them to a stereotyped characature. Be sure you understand what motivates them, what their values are, and fully grasp how they will respond to the way you chose to communicate with them.

  • Lee Powell

    Is a designer a developer? or vice versa? The two seem to always get wrapped up under the term ‘web designer’…

    • http://climbingdown.wordpress.com Bea

      I think there’s another debate for this. Designers… design, and Developers well, develop codes. It probably got lost somewhere but, the point is to not stereotype our audience whatever field it might be – design, or development.

  • http://www.rabbitdigital.com Warren O’Donoghue

    Fab post and well written, food for thought for sure, when not thinking code and sex that is – lol – :)

  • http://rolling-webdesign.com Theo

    Vrey good article. It is important to know what your audience is interested in.

    “characature” should be “character” ?

  • http://rolling-webdesign.com Theo

    Sorry, it should be “Very” and i know now what characature mean;)

  • http://www.surferm.ag Justin

    Sorry, I got distracted by the booth girls. Am sure you’ve put some valid points though.

    • A WebDeveloper

      Lol, I got distracted by booth girls too.
      Web Developer and Web Designer are different things. Web Designers don’t think in code and maybe they even don’t think in sex, because the stereotype is that they’re gays, or they’re smoking weed, they’re more like beggars (in the way they dress), LoL; and for Webdevelopers they really think in code and aspire to have sex rather than only having virtual sex with Alice ( http://alicebot.blogspot.com/2009/06/adult-chat-bots-advance.html)

      LoL, I’m joking, this is a nice post, but maybe talk about stereotypes will be like talking about religious topics, so broad to make a good conclusion.

  • http://www.chixcreative.com Irene

    Welcome to our (female designers/developers) world.

    I’ve been living with this kind of thing for so long, and watching the political correctness pendulum swing from one extreme to another that I have no idea what to expect really when attending a tech-related event or trade show, especially if it’s outside North America.

    I’ve simply had to learn how to tune out, ignore, find the correct “authority” person to send comments to, or just spend company money elsewhere.

    These kinds of articles are bittersweet, really. When we (women in tech) make comments or critiques about booth babes, sexist jokes, or otherwise stereotypical geek humour, we usually get dismissed as overly-sensitive, politically correct whiners, or raging lesbians. “That’s the way it is, honey! Can’t change the culture of geekdom.”

    So now that men are echoing our statements YEARS later, their comments get traction and attention. Of course.

    Hopefully you will understand why we might feel conflicted about that.

    Thanks for pointing it out for FrontEnd 2010. I’ll be sure not to attend their conferences in the future. Last thing I need is to attend a conference to learn about emerging technologies just to get offered semi-erotic swag by booth babes or tune out yet another imbecile making inappropriate comments. Note to conference organisers: if you can’t take the time to properly think about your audience, then your show will likely be a waste of our time and money.

  • http://teachtheweb.com/ Leslie Jensen-Inman

    Wow. It always surprises me when I still hear about these types of experiences. As a woman, who teaches the next generation of web designers (both men and women), I thank you for writing this. I keep hoping that the young woman whom I teach, will have a more favorable experience at “geek” events but it seems like things are going backwards (at least with marketers). I’m grateful that most attendees and speakers do not believe this type of marketing is appropriate. Hopefully, posts like these will help marketers to better understand their target audience.

  • http://peterwilson.cc Peter Wilson

    “Was this the organisers fault? Not at all. After all if you employee a professional you expect them to know the audience and do their research.”

    I think the reverse is true:

    “Was this the hosts fault? Not at all. After all, employing a professional requires research, auditioning, and matching compare to audience.”

  • Mallory

    Pff. As a woman, I have no issue with booth girls (well, they always look better than I do, so I might get jealous). Sure, if I had been to that notorious CouchDB Ruby talk, I would have rolled my eyes, but unlike a commenter above me I would not let such things stop me from attending a conference about my profession (the cost would though).

    What I actually wanted to comment on was the “Personas” trick I see companies using… where you make up imaginary people who represent types of users you think you have. Is this any different? Better? Just as stupid?

    What is a developer supposed to do when their audience isn’t some niche, but is everyone? First, we have no choice but to make at least some basic assumptions. Second, we can only keep in mind that they’re probably totally wrong for at least some users. And if it is a niche group? In catering to them you cannot help but alienate… someone. More likely, lots of someones.

  • http://www.sugarcatblog.com Rachel

    Thanks for another interesting article.

    Things like booth babes and sexist jokes are insulting to men as well as women, appealing to the the lowest common denominator.

    I’ve experienced the same kind of thing in reverse – a women’s networking event featuring male waiters in just their pants. Sadly, most of the ladies present seemed to like this aspect. I just found it horribly exploitative.

    goes to patch up feminist banner

  • http://www.frontend2011.com Teodor

    Hi Paul,

    Thank you for a great presentation at FRONTEND 2010 and your great feedback.

    We have our “Lessons learned” from 2010 that we will be aware of for the great 2011.

    FRONTEND 2011 is now up at http://www.frontend2011.com

    Best regards
    Teodor Bjerrang
    IXD

    Creator of the FRONTEND conference in Oslo

  • http://www.hammerkit.com Paula

    Indeed, “humor” has its place, but not in public events. As anyone who cares about their brand will know, bad news travel fast. Kudos for Teodor for your humble reply.

    P.S. Saw the pics, many hot geek guys there! ;)

  • http://sixteenthree.sg/ Angelee

    Paul made a good point in the article. But what I’m picturing out is the whole conference that Paul was invited to. Organising conferences is never an easy task and it’s very challenging for the whole team to make the whole event perfectly done. Sometimes, there are just things that we thought are attractive or amusing but then it turned out to be an unpleasant impact to somebody. I think both the organiser and the entertainer should learn the lesson here.

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