Knowing your audience is everything

Knowing your audience is everything

How do you know what is your friend’s favorite food? How do you find out what your significant other would like to do on Valentine’s Day? How do you know if your mom liked her Mother’s Day gift? The easiest way to find out is to just ask.

When I tell people that I specialize in human centered design, I get two types of responses. Half of the people will ask what it means, and the other half becomes slightly uncomfortable imagining and calculating how much effort I am putting into user and customer research. Human centered design gets a bad rap with cost conscious companies and individuals due to the misconception that research is expensive and time consuming. When in fact, it will save you money to know early if you’re designing the right thing — and if you’re designing it right.

Human centered design is a framework (often credited to being popularized by Ideo) used to help keeping the focus of the design process on the end user of the product. What human centered design aims to ensure is that the solutions being created are tailor made to suit the target audience’s needs. If you knew exactly what your partner wants for their birthday, wouldn’t it be much easier to get them the gift? And the success would be more guaranteed than trying to guess what they might like. So, when I work, I try to get validation from customers early on — already when I am still just sketching for concepts, or even before that.

Knowing your audience is super important when it comes to design. Designing and building a product (physical or digital) is expensive and time consuming even when you get it right. But what is really expensive is designing and building something multiple times because you did not validate to make sure your product resonates with the audience. Research can help us get our designs right early on, so that after having “measured twice” we only need to “cut once.”

Recently, I have been reading some business and brand strategy books. My three most recent have been:

1. The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

2. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne

3. Lingo: Discover Your Ideal Customer’s Secret Language by Jeffrey Shaw

4. Badass Your Brand: The Impatient Entrepreneur’s Guide to Turning Expertise into Profit by Pia Silva

Each of these Amazon 4.5/5-star reviewed strategy books have their own points of view and unique approaches to solving business challenges, but they all share one very strong common thread: knowing your customer. Few repeating ideas are:

Listen to, interact with, observe, and study your customer to gain competitive advantage.

When you know who you speak to, it is more likely that they listen.

Know what pain points your customer has, so you can create a solution someone else hasn’t thought of yet. Or you can improve and existing solution so much that your customers will choose you over other offerings.

Know what your customer wants, so you don’t have to sell yourself but the customer will find you because you have what they want.

Knowledge is power, they say. And in design it indeed is. And knowing your audience isn’t limited to your design work only, or business or brand strategy for that matter. You should always consider the audience, no matter what you’re doing. Are you applying for a job? You should tailor your resume and portfolio to reflect the skills the job opening requires (and you hopefully have). Yes, you read that right. You should not only tailor your resume, but your portfolio, as well. Consider what the prospective employer is looking for and highlight those aspects of your projects on your portfolio. It is more work than just rewriting your resume, but it pays off in the end.

Are you presenting your designs to your peers or business stakeholders in the office? The audience makes a big difference here, too. When presenting to your peers, you can keep the language more design focused and dive into the details of your designs. But when you are presenting to non-designer audience, first stop to think why are they coming to this presentation, why are you presenting to them. They likely care less about how many pixels to right you have placed your icons. Maybe they want to hear where your design process is going, what implications or dependencies there are in relation to other on-going projects. Depending on the situation, it might be perfectly fine to ask the audience: what aspects of the design work they’d like to discuss. And again you have factual info on what your audience expects.

Knowing your audience is everything, and research can help you with that. There are dedicated design researchers that focus on finding out customer (and market) needs and testing the designs. But in my point of view, it is critical designers participate in the research process — even if it meant only as an observer. Often times, interviews are full of interesting conversations that won’t be as inspiring if you just read them in the research report. I’ve also witnessed many times how people interpret what they heard during interviews and/or testing completely differently. So, forming your own point of view is easier if you get first hand information.

Best thing about knowing your customer is that it is no nuclear physics — anyone can do it. This means anyone can build successful and competitive products and services. All you need is an inquisitive mind and interest to build empathy to your target audience. Yes, there is processes and methods to doing customer and user research, and some people will be better at it than others. At the same time, all these can be learned and the more you get hands on with the research the easier it becomes. I’ve written a quick guide to get you over the fear of interviewing people. If nothing else, you can start there.

Think of knowledge about your audience like switching on lights in darkness. If you’re trying to walk through a dark room, it is likely you’re going to bump into furniture. But when you turn on the lights, you know exactly where to step to walk across safely.

Research tips for beginners

Research tips for beginners

It should go without saying that doing research is critical for design — especially UX design, but other areas too. This might mean background research where you dig into the topic at hand and try to learn about the history or it can mean mapping out the current situation: competition, trends, etc. For UX designers, it usually also means interviewing or observing users — or customers, whichever term you prefer — to find out customer needs and pain points, validate your design concepts, and test your designs. In other words, part of your research might happen in solitude or with a small team mining books and the mighty Internet. But large part of your research work requires human contact — quite often with people you don’t know or haven’t even met before. In some cases, you might even end up soliciting interview subjects in an event walking around and approaching people who seem to have something better to do.

Some lucky design organizations and teams have dedicated researchers. These guys are an amazing asset and worth their weight in gold. If you have one, go become their best friend right now! But even in those cases, I urge designers to take an active role in the research work. There’s nothing quite like hearing the customer explain their needs with their own words, and much of the message gets interpreted along the way. Having observed user interviews or conducted the interview myself countless of times, I’ve often witnessed how everyone, who was listening the interview, hears what was said a little differently. Since I want to form a point of view on how to best solve the customer problem, I like to be able to hear their comments first hand, instead of having to rely on someone else’s interpretation.

Striking up a conversation with strangers has never been my strongest suit. Actually, if I can completely avoid talking to people I don’t know, all the better. But I still acknowledge the importance of user research, and often times I don’t have a dedicated researcher to help me. This means I have to do my own interview research. So, how do you push yourself to do something that is almost entirely out of your comfort zone and so important to get done — and get done well. There is art to forming your interview questions so that you don’t guide the interviewee and contaminate the results. And there is a whole set of guidelines for dealing with difficult interviewees (rude people, folks who don’t stay in topic, no shows, etc.). But this post won’t deal with those issues, I’ll write about them later. This post is about how to get over your fear of having to deal with strangers and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.

1. Friend a researcher and tag along to observe

The best way I learnt about doing user research was by observing actual user researchers. A trained researcher has process they follow and they know how to get started, what kind of research methods to apply to the challenge at hand, and how to solicit research subjects. Observing and working with a researcher is, of course, not the same as getting a formal training as a researcher, but it gives you an idea of what goes into the research process.

Like anytime when you’re working with a mentor or learning from an expert, take notes, ask questions, and offer to do hands on activities. Best way is to learn by doing. Is the researcher putting together a research plan? Ask if you can read an early draft (and then subsequent drafts to see how it evolves) or even write some part(s) of it. Are they writing an interview script? Ask again if you can get hands on in the writing process. In any case, you should be actively participating in putting together the interview script because you need to know what to create in case it requires some designs or workflows to be shown.

2. Practice by interviewing your friends 

If you are entirely new to the idea of interviewing people, practice with your friends. It may feel silly, but it gets you in the groove of asking questions and recording the answers. Pick any topic your friend might know more about than you do and write a script. Harvard UX Group shares Starter Questions for User Research on their website. You can use that to get started. If you like, you can imitate user research by picking some everyday object or challenge for as the context for the “product opportunity questions” and “product reaction questions.”

Stage the practice situation with your friend as close to a real interview as possible. Try face to face interviews as well as some over the phone or an online meeting with a video camera (Google Hangouts works well enough for that). Record the audio and listen later to hear how you did. Recording is also great for checking details later as you can’t take detailed notes when you’re interviewing someone. Always remember to as permission before you record someone.

Phone interviews might be easier to start with as no one will see if you have to read from the paper at first. Try to stay in script and if you goof, don’t jump “out of the character” and start chatting with your friend but try and figure out what would you do if you messed up in a real interview.

3. Write a full script — not just questions

One of my fears about interviewing people is that I will forget what I was going to say next or just not knowing what to say in the first place. What helps me get over this fear is writing the entire script down in a conversational tone — just like I was talking. I include each and every phrase from “thank you for sharing that with me” to “ok, let’s talk a little bit about your experience.” Writing helps me remember what to say later, and it also works as practice when reading it through multiple times during the script writing process.

The great thing about writing the script this way is that if your interview takes place over the phone, you can have it in front of you the entire time. And the conversational tone ensures that if you mess up you can get back to your script by reading directly from the paper. If your interview is face to face, then you can’t really read from paper because you need to look at the interviewee in the eyes when asking questions. But you can still have notes and cheat sheets and question lists. And in both cases, it helps to have written the interview script out in full.

4. Use props for events and when soliciting interviewees at a location

Sometimes you can’t know in advance who you will be interviewing because you’re planning to solicit the subjects in an event or at a specific location. These are challenging situations because the interviewees were not expecting to participate in a research and, especially in events, there can be many distractions around. In these situations, it helps to have props to support your interview/research.

Props can be as simple as a little card that explains what the research is about. Showing this card when you introduce yourself and explain your research can help the subjects understand quickly what you are after. You can also plan your research to be more like a hands on activity than an interview. In events, people can be in more “active mode” than “let’s sit down and talk mode.” For example, you could ask targets to group cards or pin something on a large pin board. You could ask them to rate things on paper or co-create something with you quickly. Matt Cooper-Wright (Senior Design Lead at Ideo) shares a variety of helpful research activities in his blog Design Research Methods.

5. Give folks a little reward

Rewards are great for soliciting interviewees. If you have a budget for small rewards, it helps you feel more comfortable when asking someone to participate because you’re not just asking for a favor, you have something to give in return. I have given $5 Starbucks gift cards for students in an event for 30-40 minute research activity. I’ve given $20-50 Amazon gift cards for remote online interviews. Typically the amount of the reward directly correlates with the length and the level of challenge of the interview or activity.

If you’re doing an open research booth at an event where anyone walking by can pin something on a board or answer a quick survey etc., you might choose to have self service coffee available or candy and comfy chairs for resting. These small things would be cheaper than giving each participant a gift card — even a small one — and they lure people to your booth who then happily do your quick activity after a brief rest and cup of coffee.

Giving a reward as a thank you for participating in the research also helps me psychologically. I don’t feel as much like I am asking people to do me favors, instead they are working for me for a short while. I feel more confident and less awkward if I have to reschedule the interview or reach out to them again for whatever reason. If you can give a reward for an interview, mention it already during your solicitation process to encourage them to say yes. Recently, I was solicited for a user interview and they offered a dollar for each minute of my time estimating that the interview would take 60-80 minutes. That is a pretty good hourly pay for a conversation.

6. Stay focused and think of empathy

Years back, I participated in a training for performing on stage. It was an activity arranged by my employer at the time. We did all the average voice control exercises and your basic ‘where and whom to look at’ when you’re on stage. But the single most effective piece of advise I got was about empathy. We were explained that, according to studies (unfortunately I cannot remember the sources anymore) the audience typically has strong empathy for the performer. They are rooting for you. The audience wants you to be successful. This is true for the interviews, as well. They don’t know it might be your first time interviewing them. And since they agreed to do your interview or activity, it means they already have empathy for you and your cause. They want to help your project to be successful.

It also helps to remind yourself why you are doing this. You are developing empathy four the customer or user. You cannot do that if you don’t know the goals and pain points of your customer. And the best way to do that is to interact with them, ask specific questions, and observe them.


Interviewing customers and soliciting interview subjects can feel like a daunting task. Especially if you are an introvert. Hopefully the tips above will help you get started. In addition to those, plan your research well, start scheduling early, reserve time for research analysis, and always act professional and calm. Happy interviewing!