Designing for Multiple Audiences

By David Roth

Consider the humble manhole cover. This simple steel disc must be strong enough to withstand the pounding of cars, trucks and snowplows while staying securely in place. But it must also be light enough to be moved by utility workers and allow for easy underground access.

How do we create one solution for such wildly different audience needs?

As designers, we face that challenge every day. Rarely do we hit upon a solution as elegant as the manhole cover. It has no hinges or moving parts. Its shape makes for easy movement and prevents it from falling into the hole, and its weight keeps it in place. All of its qualities work together. It’s a masterpiece of empathetic design.

This kind of thinking is critical, regardless of the design task. When the project is digital, we start with a series of important questions:

Who will be using the things we design?
What do these people need?
What are the user’s expectations, level of digital comfort and biases?
How much time does the user have, and is their goal casual or critical?
How do the user’s goals align with those of our client?

Empathizing with this user challenge is tough, but it can make a world of difference. When you’re working on a website for several months, you develop a familiarity with the content and design system that’s hard to forget. Things that look obvious to you can be utterly baffling to new visitors. This “design bias” can be problematic.

Fortunately, there are reliable tools that provide a helpful counterbalance to design bias, and generate empathy for our users.

  • Personas: Who are our prioritized visitors? What need are we trying to satisfy? What level of familiarity with our market, brand and services can we assume? Personas are the result of research that helps us understand the kind of users we’re addressing in a real way.
  • Journey maps: These illustrations provide a framework for answering important questions: How are our prioritized audiences currently finding our site or app? How would we prefer them to find it? How are they currently moving through the site or app? How can we optimize that journey? What are the additional important touch points we should bear in mind? Creating a visual illustration of these journeys can greatly contribute to stakeholder alignment and understanding of both the current problem state and our opportunities to improve.
  • Site traffic analytics: These metrics indicate which pages are getting the most traffic, where visitors are coming from, and how long they’re staying. We can also look to these data for a record of where are users leave the site or app, and where they’re going when they leave. Understanding this quantitative data helps to settle subjective disagreements about what users really want.
  • Intercept Surveys: There’s no substitute for candor, and real users offer no shortage of opinions. Most valuable of these are the answers to the questions “what was your goal for this visit? Did you accomplish that goal? If not, what went wrong?” While sometimes contradictory and confusing, these qualitative data are invaluable.
  • Card sorts: Creating a cogent information architecture (IA) is equal parts art and science. Organizing content in intuitive groupings helps users quickly develop a mental model of the system, and user-centric navigational labels help them find their way to the content that matters to them.
    Card sorts provide an opportunity for us to watch people think through thorny content organization challenges. This provides valuable insights into how they think about the content, and illuminates the areas that are hard for them to understand. The outcome of this process is empathy for end users, and alignment across client and design teams.
  • Tree testing: Once we’ve arrived at a draft IA, we want to validate it. Tree testing is a great way to do just that. Testers are presented with a series of questions asking them to navigate an IA one step at a time in search of specified content. The testing platform records their movement, and reveals meaningful patterns.
  • Task observation: Finally, it’s important to actually watch people interacting with the interfaces we design. These screens can be expressed as marker sketches, designed wireframes, high resolution design, or even fully developed HTML prototypes. Testers are asked to execute a series of tasks, and we watch as they work their way through the artifacts we’ve created. Once they’re done, we ask them a series of questions about the experience—What worked? What was confusing?

While these exercises can settle some disputes, they’re almost always humbling for those of us tasked with solving complex design problems. Qualitative and quantitative research can reveal a ton of valuable information, challenge our assumptions, and reveal insights we can’t anticipate.  Most importantly, they dramatically amplify the quality of our work when combined with respect and empathy. They don’t grant us understanding of every user, but they get us a lot closer, humanizing the decisions we make in the service of multiple users.

As Director, Experience Architecture, David has over 20 years of experience as a communication designer, delivering effective solutions for clients such as IBM, Procter & Gamble, Thomson Reuters, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, and Harley Davidson. Since joining VSA in 2011, David has been responsible for designing strategic and tactical solutions across a wide range of business-to-business and business-to-consumer projects. He brings a commitment to usability through user-centric design, and deep experience in reorganizing complex taxonomies into elegant, user-friendly systems.
David can be contacted at