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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Wednesday, 22nd June, 2011

Defining your audience and their tasks

[S02E02] This week on the boagworld show we look at defining your target audience and identifying their goals, activities and tasks.

Season 2:
The estimated time to read this article is 11 minutes
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When you are running a website it is easy to make assumptions about your target audience. You hold a mental image in your head about who they are and what they want to do. However, maybe we don’t know as much as we think.

I have to say finally forcing myself to define the target audience for boagworld.com has been an enlightening process and I am sure it will be for you too.

Step one was to write a list of who uses this website.

Listing your audiences

You probably already have a good idea of the different people who use your site. Writing it down is just a matter of putting it in black and white. However if you are like me, that list will become longer than you first expected.

This is the list of users I came up with for boagworld.com:

  • Freelancers.
  • Web design students.
  • Website Managers (those who run a website for a company that employees them).
  • Website Owners (those who run a website for themselves).
  • In house designers and developers.
  • Amateur enthusiasts.

Alt Audience at FOWD

Image Credit

However after a bit more thought, I realised that website managers and owners needed splitting down into two additional groups. Those who were web literate and those who were not.

On one hand you had website owners who were tech entrepreneurs keen to launch their latest startup. On the other you had owners of brick and mortar businesses who didn’t know much about the web.

As for the website managers, some of them ran web teams within their organisations. These were very knowledgable when compared to those who were either project managers or marketeers assigned short term to overseeing the redevelopment of the website.

Each of these four groups had different requirements and so needed treating as separate audiences.

Once I had my final list the next step was to prioritise it.

Prioritising your audiences

Most website owners hate prioritising their audiences. Its hard to do and you feel placing one audience above another effectively ignores secondary groups.

To some extent this is true. If you design for everybody then you are effectively designing for nobody. Without prioritising your audiences you inevitabily end up with a bland site that excites nobody.

My mantra is simple ‘design for somebody, alienate nobody’. In other words you should prioritise your audience and focus the site on the most important. However, you should avoid alienating your other audiences in the process.

Alt A tweet of my new mantra

So how do you prioritise your audience? Prioritisation should be about the value that those audiences bring to your business objectives. If an audience has the potential to help you achieve those objectives then they should be prioritised.

Let’s look at how this works out in practice on boagworld.com by examining the benefits each of our audiences bring to meeting our primary business objective of generating work for Headscape.

  • Freelancers. It would be easy to dismiss freelancers as competition. However, in actual fact freelancers provide three benefits to Headscape. First, we have been known to recruit freelancers who have followed boagworld.com. Second, freelancers sometimes pass on work to Headscape that is too big for them. Finally, freelancers are some of the most passionate evangelists for the boagworld.com website.
  • Web design students. Students are a long term investment for Headscape. We have been known to recruit from this audience and also they often go on to be influencers in larger organisations once they graduate. These organisations sometimes end up hiring us based on their recommendations.
  • Website Managers. Website managers tend to work for larger organisations who can afford the services of Headscape and so are a primary audience. Given a choice we would choose to work with the more tech savvy of this group, but those with a non web background can make excellent clients too.
  • Website Owners. Where adequate funding is in place this can be a lucrative group for Headscape and so needs nurturing. However, it also includes a lot of individuals who do not have the funds to support our five figure projects.
  • In house designers and developers. This is a major target audience for Headscape. Because of the cost associated with running a web team, they tend to work for organisations who can afford our services. Although they do not hire external agencies themselves they do have influence and often recommend us because they have come to respect our work on boagworld.com.
  • An amateur enthusiast. Although not a potential source of revenue for Headscape this audience does enthusiastically support the boagworld.com community. They are a strong source of volunteers and promote the site far and wide.

It is easy to dismiss some audiences as not valuable, but as you can see from the list above everybody who comes to your website can offer something back.

Alt Man show you his hand as in 'talk to the hand'

Image Credit

That said, it is still necessary to prioritise and when set against our primary business objective of generating work for Headscape this is how the list comes out:

  1. Website Managers.
  2. In house designers and developers.
  3. Website Owners.
  4. Freelancers.
  5. Web design students.
  6. An amateur enthusiast.

Let me be clear. The site should still cater for all of the above audiences. However, it should focus on the top 2 or 3 in particular.

You maybe wondering why I placed in house designers and developers above website owners. This is because of the typical size of organisations these two groups work for. In our experience website owners are less likely to have the funding needed to hire Headscape when compared to organisations large enough to employee an in house team. That said, if Headscape was a slightly smaller company I would switch these around.

We know who are target audiences are and what benefit they bring to our business objectives. The next thing we need to establish is what they want from the site.

Establishing general user objectives

Even though it will be a best guess (see Isn’t this all guesswork below) you probably have an approximate idea of what users want to do on your website. Take a few minutes to look at each of your key audiences and establish the kind of things they will want from the site.

Alt Woman getting frustrated because her objectives clash with what the site wants her to do.

Image Credit

This is how my list looks:

  1. Tech savvy website managers. Latest news, expert opinion, latest best practice, information on Headscape and selecting a web design agency.
  2. Non technical website managers. Answers to specific questions, an introduction to best practice, information on selecting a web design agency.
  3. In house designers and developers. Latest news, latest best practice, expert opinion, a sense of community.
  4. Tech Savvy website owners. Latest news, latest best practice, expert opinion.
  5. Non technical website owners. Technical support, general guidance.
  6. Freelancers. Latest news, latest best practice, expert opinion, a sense of community.
  7. Web design students. Latest news, an introduction to best practice, feedback on specific issues and a sense of belonging to the web community.
  8. An amateur enthusiast. Latest news, an introduction to best practice, feedback on specific issues and a sense of belonging to the web community.

What was interesting about this list is that despite the range of people and the differences in their backgrounds, the list of things they wish to do on the website is relatively limited.

This is not unusual and is perhaps why an increasing number of web designers are focusing on the goals, activities and tasks rather than the demographics of the user.

The problem with personas

For a while now the web design community (myself included) have put a considerable emphasis on personas as a way to design for the user’s needs.

Personas do have their place. Being able to picture what a user looks like and understanding a little of their background can be very beneficial in writing and designing for them. However, personas are often produced at the expense of really understanding what those users want to achieve.

Alt Example personas

Image Credit

Because I am the only person working on the site I decided that the value of producing personas was minimal. I talk to and work with each of the audiences on a daily basis and can easily picture a ‘website manager’ or ‘freelancer’ who fits the bill. I don’t need an artificial persona.

What was more interesting for me was exactly what it is users want to achieve on boagworld.com. That is where goals, activities and tasks come in.

Goals, activities and tasks

I have recently been reading Joshua Porter’s book on designing for the social web and he introduced me to the concept of goals, activities and tasks.

In his book Joshua writes:

It is helpful to distinguish between goals, activities, and tasks. Goals are end conditions people are striving for. Activities are the set of tasks people do to achieve their goals.

Many times we focus too much on tasks instead of the larger activity. Instead of focusing on the task of”purchasing goods,” it is more beneficial for design purposes to focus on the activity of shopping, as it better describes what is really going on.

Alt Designing for the Social Web by Joshua Porter

Image Credit

This left me feeling that my list of tasks lacked definition. I therefore decided to transform them into goals, activities and specific tasks. This is what I came up with:

Goal Activity Task
Be up-to-date Read about the latest innovations in web design. Read blog posts. Bookmark. Follow links. Follow us on twitter.
Get an answer to a specific questions. Ask questions and get answers. Post a question to the forum. Post a comment. Send an email to me. Send me a tweet.
Hire a web design agency Research into Headscape or generally into hiring a web agency. Read blog posts. Read about me and Headscape. Visit the Headscape website. Complete a work request form.
Becoming proficient in the basics of web design. Read introductory material on web design. Read ‘beginners’ blog posts on boagworld. Follow links to external material for newbies. Post and read content from the forum.
Gain a network of web design related contacts. Participate in community activities. Signup for live webcasts. Post in the forum. Post comments on blog. Follow me on Twitter. Join the Facebook page.

I found the exercise massively valuable and I am sure you will too. Focusing on those three levels gave context to the specific individual tasks that users will be completing.

It also threw into stark contrast the difference between what I wanted users to do (my calls to action) and what users wanted to do. It was obviously an exchange. I meet their needs and hopefully they will respond in kind. This is very much in line with the Thank You Economy talked about by Gary Vaynerchuk and others.

This is a lesson we all need to learn as website owners. If you want something from your users then you need to give generously. That is why I give away so much of my knowledge and expertise for free.

Of course, you could argue that I am just guessing when it comes to what tasks users are doing or even about who my audience is. I haven’t tested anything yet. Surely that cannot be right?

Isn’t this all guesswork?

Of course you are right. It is not good practice to just guess who your target audience is or what they want from your website. You need to know if you are going to build your entire website on that basis.

Depending on your budget and timescales you could consider doing stakeholder interviews, user testing or focus groups.

As my budget is limited I am going for a more direct approach. If you are reading this you are my target audience. So tell me, do you fall into one of the audiences above? If not who are you and what do you want from the site? Is there something you want from boagworld.com that I have failed to mention? If so I want to know.

Please, please help me out and share in the comments below.

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