industry info

The Importance of Audience

One of the most disturbing things about the Web 2.0 Summit
in San Francisco last October (aside from the small number of women in
attendance) was a panel discussion by what one might call “average
users.” The theme of this year’s Summit was “Discovering the Web’s
Edge.” The organizers took that theme and explored the edges of gaming,
technology, social networking, and–in this case–the edge of the Web’s
users. Namely, older users (at the mid-to-high end of the baby boomer

The panel consisted of three men and two women and began as good, clean fun. One of the couples already had a YouTube presence,
which was discovered partway through the panel and then broadcast on
the big screen to the delight of the audience. The facilitator asked
questions about how they used the Internet which, not surprisingly,
consisted mostly of emailing, personal ads, and Craigslist–which one
user had recently discovered and was extremely excited about. Her
excitement was amusing to everyone. (In fact, she seemed to think
Craigslist was the Internet.)

But, what started out as a few giggles from the audience over one
user’s Craigslist enthusiasm soon grew into uproarious laughter over
just about everything that came out of the panelists’ mouths. At that
point, we looked at each other in horror and realized that the audience
was no longer laughing with this panel, but at them.
Everything at the Summit up until then had been a lot of preaching to
the choir: designers and developers talking to each other, about each
other and for each other. At that moment, the Summit audience should
have been listening more closely than ever. Sure, some of the
panelists’ statements sounded naive or silly or uniformed. But, like it
or not, these “technically impaired” users represent a far greater
portion of our audience than those that are more “like us.”

It’s easy to insulate ourselves from the real world and ignore the
needs of the average user. But, we’re not building experiences for each
other, we’re building them for a particular target. And we would
venture to guess that 9 times out of 10 a target audience is made up of
those “average” users. As developers, we run the risk of contributing
to the lack of usability on the web by building for ourselves in spite
of the research or user information we uncover in the process. Admit
it. We’re all guilty of it. You want your clients to “think outside of
the box” or grasp your brilliant “creative.” We’ve heard more than one
irritated Creative Director suggest, at one time or another, that the
client just doesn’t “get” the big idea or can’t possibly embrace this
cutting edge technology? We know they are out there. We’ve worked with

Yes, we have a responsibility to push our clients to think about
their business and the Internet in ways that may seem new and
unexplored. But, at the end of the day its not really about them, or
us; its about the user. The user that thinks that Craig’s List is the
internet. We don’t work with the average user. We’re barely aware of
them any more. We gorge ourselves on the latest trends as dictated by
our favorite blogs and news sources and summits and conferences and we
get farther and farther away from that user. But who says we’re really
the experts and we get to decide what’s bleeding edge? We’re just as
guilty of insulating ourselves by reading the same blogs, the same
feeds, using the same technology and not exploring anything outside of
our technological comfort zone. This leads to an unhealthy sense of
what’s happening in the world around us and what our mission as
creators of Interactive experiences is really about.

So, does every site need to be created with your mom (or grandma) in
mind? No. But we need to make real efforts to define and understand our
site audiences — even when their technology skills may not be as good
as ours. There are generations of people that aren’t “here” yet. But
that doesn’t make them stupid. If we don’t reach them, we’re missing
out on a significant faction of our commercial targets. And we’re doing
our clients a disservice by not reaching their intended audience.

[cross-posted at the MIMA blog