Design Decisions vs. Audience Considerations

Design Decisions vs. Audience Considerations

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In: Articles

By Robin Ragle-Davis

Published on May 20, 2008

Deep down below the layers of interface, CSS, HTML, and XML—down where only the geekiest among us roam—everything comes down to this: it’s all zeroes and ones. On or off. The digital switch.

Though interaction and conversion becomes a bit more complicated at the point the interface meets the visitor, though there are a few more shades of gray, in the end it comes down to the same thing: yes or no.

You will succeed in attracting and engaging your audience…or you won’t. Your audience will visit your site looking for information they want to find or a product they are interested in. If they don’t find it, or if you don’t otherwise engage them, they’ll leave.

We know this, and yet the attraction of designing for ourselves, because we know best, or simply giving the client what he or she wants, after all they are paying, tempt us regularly.

As web designers, we have a unique and thorny task. How do we present the information we most want a visitor to see while simultaneously serving the visitor the content they came for? The two may not be the same, so an awareness of who our audience is as well as why our audience is there should be considered before a single design decision is made.

If you know who your target audience is, you can tailor your site’s look and feel, content, and action areas to appeal to your audience and draw them in. If you know what your site visitors want, you can use that information to mutual benefit. Site visitors will leave having found what they came for, and—if you have done your homework—you will have gotten the response you wanted from them. This may be their contact information. It may be a product purchase. If you are really lucky, the site visitor will sign up to receive email and you will have a chance to forge an ongoing relationship.

We all know that site visitors prefer a site that is easier to use. An optimized site will have more traffic. A site that is cross-browser compatible will carry the same message and branding to everyone who looks at it, without unpleasant and unexpected behavior. Usability, Standards and Content Optimization are, at the end of the day, also audience considerations.

In this article, I’ll discuss the process of deciding or determining who your audience is, the basics of understanding audience motivation and response, the process of making design decisions based on audience considerations, and how to use what you know about your audience to influence behavior.

Visitors, Users, and Audience

What distinguishes your audience from visitors and users? Visitors include everyone who happens upon your site. Users are intentional visitors who are looking for something specific.

Your Audience are the visitors you are trying to reach, to whom you are trying to deliver your message, and with whom you are most likely trying to establish an ongoing relationship. They are made up of groups of individuals with certain characteristics, needs, and desires in common.

Target the group. An individual responds.

Decide whom you intend to target. You may have a single target audience or multiple target audiences. Often you will have primary and secondary targets.

For example: If you are designing a site for a political candidate, possible audiences might include registered voters, citizens of voting age, members of the candidate’s party, independent voters, current supporters, potential supporters, and members of the press.

More specific categories might include students and young voters, women, union members, business owners, and members of different ethnic and cultural groups. When looking at this list, it’s obvious that some members will fit into more than one category and some groups will share common traits.

First let’s break our list up a bit.

All registered voters:

  • Current supporters
  • Potential donors
  • Potential supporters

Who might be:

  • Members of candidate’s party
  • Independent voters
  • Students and young voters, women, union members, members of different ethnic and cultural groups
  • Members of the press

Let’s diagram this so we can see the relationships more clearly.

The most critical audience you are trying to reach is in the grey area above. Once you have determined how the structure and content of your site will serve this audience, you can move on to the task of responding to the specific needs of narrower groups.

Understand your Audience: Research, Focus, Interview

If at all possible, do some audience research. The way in which you approach this will be determined by your needs, the scope of the project, time, and budget. Your research may include simple internet research or involve setting up focus groups. If you can’t manage the time and cost of a focus group, it is still beneficial to interview representatives of your audience. Develop a survey or conduct in-person interviews. Gathering or listening to the concerns of what might well be a current audience can be especially useful. In our candidate example, what can emails, letters received, or face-to-face conversations tell you about the issues closest to their hearts?

Find out what they would be looking for on a site similar to yours. Using your biggest competition as functional examples, ask what their experience on these sites has been, and what they liked or didn’t like about these sites. Research their browsing habits. What browsers and operating systems do they use? What is their connection speed? What is their technical experience?

The Process of Making Design Decisions Based on Audience

Our diagram above shows multiple target audiences, but we are going to primarily target prospective donors and prospective supporters. If you look again, you’ll see that we probably want to specifically target subsets. We will want to keep current supporters involved and happy, as well.

Let us say we decide—based on the message we want to deliver and the audiences we are targeting—that the most important content areas on our candidate site are:

  • Action Items:
    • Contribution form
    • Volunteer form
    • Sign up to receive email from the campaign
  • Regular Content:
    • Feature items—information of a timely nature, such as an upcoming event, new endorsement, etc.
    • Your candidate’s stand on the issues
    • Candidate bio
    • News about the candidate
    • Events
    • Endorsements
    • Voting information

When designing your wireframe you will want to know which of these content areas needs to be called out prominently and which your site visitors will already be looking for.

In this case, volunteers, donations, and signing up for email are critical to the campaign’s success and apply to both current and potential supporters. They are action items that require the visitor to interact with the site, and are your best option for forging a continuing relationship with the visitor. These items are directed toward a large share of the audience. You will want to feature them prominently, perhaps even include them on every page.

Most of the regular content consists of the items your audience and visitors will actually be looking for.

You’ll want to make these easy to find. Although navigation to these items should make sense in terms of placement and grouping, you don’t need to make an extra effort to call them out. You probably do want them to appear above the fold.

Now, remember these members of your audience—members of different ethnic and cultural groups, union members, and women? Sometimes responding to these segments is a matter of content. Certainly this group will look carefully at the issues area. Sometimes it is a matter of targeted communication. Ask what they are interested in. Heath care? Employment? Be sure to address their concerns. Consider translating the bio and issues pages, and make the translations accessible from the main page. If an individual feels important to you, their response is more likely to be positive; contrary to all this talk of grouping and segments we are, after all, targeting individuals.

Site construction

Let’s examine our candidate’s audience again. You’ll notice that quite a large section of the population is represented. You can expect significant variations in client browsers, operating systems, connection speeds, and technical proficiency.

It goes without saying that clean, CSS-based, standards-compliant code is called for here so users on slow connections, with old browsers, or using screen readers will be able to access your content. Feel free to use Flash and video, as long as you consider alternate means of content delivery. Then test and test and test again.

Developing an Ongoing Relationship

There is nothing especially new about what I’ve discussed so far. Targeting specific demographics has been around since the 1800s. What is far more recent is the ability to respond to this information instantly. There are opportunities for developing ongoing relationships and opportunities to influence behavior when the visitor is still on your site. The first time they visit. Right now.

Relationship building is a critical part of getting return visits, business, or support. The basic contact form seems almost prehistoric compared with forums, blogs, wikis, support areas, share and bookmark links, RSS feeds, and newsletters. And that’s just the short list.

The most basic relationship is between your site and an individual member of your audience. Nurture this relationship and care about it. Not responding quickly to an email, support request, or user comment is bad customer service and, at the risk of stating the obvious, you’d need to provide an awfully compelling message or product to overcome the resulting negative perception.

Much more complex, and amazingly powerful, is the potential of community building. Done right—you’ve heard the phrase “a rising tide floats all boats”—you can increase your marketing potential exponentially by the number of active community users. If not done carefully, however, it can bite you. The web is clogged with abandoned blogs and forums. It goes without saying that free speech is not always kind, yet editing (or censorship) needs to be done with a light hand.

Customize the experience

I’m not really sure why more sites aren’t learning what shopping cart designers learned a long time ago. The path a user takes will provide information on their interests. You have a unique opportunity to recommend other content based on what the users appear to be interested in.

For example, if your site visitors click on senior issues, recommend they also view your issue page on health care. If they view information about an event with an admissions charge, recommend volunteering as an alternate option for attending. If they contribute, ask permission to add them to your mailing list and send breaking news not yet available to the public.

Send targeted email linking to the specific information you think the user may be interested in.

Influence behavior

Influencing behavior is based on the premise that if individuals are sufficiently interested in something, they will be willing to leap a hurdle to get it. A common application of this is requiring contact information before receiving access to a free download. This contact information is valuable, as the user has already expressed interest. This allows you to follow up. If you can get permission to send newsletters or email, you have the opportunity to maintain the relationship long enough to increase the chance of gaining a supporter or customer.


Your chance of connecting with your audience grows significantly with every audience-centric decision you make. Remember that binary choice at the beginning? You will succeed in attracting and engaging your audience or you won’t. Zero or one. Yes or No.

The process of reaching the individual is improved by understanding what they have in common with others. You will know the person by understanding their group. Once they establish contact, make a comment, ask a question, order a product, or request a quote for service, they become an individual again. The more you treat them that way, the stronger the relationship you are building will be.

It boils down to this. Create a site that is findable, usable, and has what your audience is looking for. You can only benefit by benefiting them. If you succeed, you can take them by the hand, say look at this! And they will.

Related Topics: User-Centered Design (UCD), User Experience, Usability, Planning

Robin Ragle-Davis became a web designer after picking up a book called “Teach Yourself HTML in 24 Hours”. It is, she thought at the time, the perfect left brain-right brain profession. She’s been creating websites for over 10 years, believes that learning is continuous and is passionate about design for use.