chapter 3

User Research | Helping Your Clients Understand Their Customers

It’s one thing for your clients to know their customers; it’s another for them to understand their customers. Knowing is focused on top-level data and information such as number of visits to a website, total social media followers, or the amount of people signed up to mailing lists. The big numbers are necessary and interesting, but it’s when your clients move from knowing to understanding their customers that they can start to make informed decisions about content, and begin to target their audiences effectively. Sometimes, they can’t do that on their own, and that’s where you come in.

Understanding audiences involves looking at the demographic, cultural, and socio-economic components of those “big numbers.” It also includes behaviours, motivations, needs, and (where relevant) any empathetic considerations as to when customers will be interacting with products, services, and content. This understanding can help you segment audiences and provide additional information about customers so your clients can benefit in several ways.

Why it pays to understand

There are benefits for both your clients and their customers when they understand who their audience really is.

From the client perspective, they benefit from:

  • Being able to position their marketing and content so it is more likely to reach the intended audience 
  • Forming a vocabulary that will resonate with their customers 
  • Having the know-how to create tools and processes to ensure all content is meaningful to their customers 
  • Being able to talk to their customers in an authentic and consistent voice and tone that reflects and supports their own brand identity

Your clients’ customers benefit because:

  • They get the content they need, when they need it, where they need it, and how they need it 
  • They are spoken to in a voice and tone that appeals to them 
  • Their user experience is better because all decisions leading to content creation have been informed

Collectively, the above benefits ensure that business goals for your clients and their customers are all met. This is the sweet spot where content can be purposeful and effective.

The research loop

We’ve looked at what the difference between knowing and understanding is, and also the benefits of the latter. The next step is outlining the methods and processes available to gain that understanding.

The process that follows belongs to the perpetual research loop consisting of:

Pre-research > Conducting research > Post-research > Repeat

Before any research is started, the purpose of it should be identified. What are you trying to find out and, of course, why? Is the research based on any existing data? Is it due to a new product or service being launched? Are you trying to build on your knowledge of an existing audience, or are you hoping to target someone new?

Once this purpose or hypothesis is known, ensure that everyone involved in the research is aware of this. There has to be a shared goal that is being worked towards. This is especially true if any third parties or external consultants are involved in conducting the research.

Treat this research like you would any other project by:

  • Writing a brief 
  • Considering the resources needed 
  • Getting stakeholders on board 
  • Putting a timeline in place 
  • Deciding how the results will be disseminated 
  • Outlining a post-research plan to ensure your investment in the research isn’t wasted

As part of the research planning—with available resources and project goals in mind—you can make decisions around what research methods to invest in. The choices can be overwhelming and include, but are not limited to:

  • Focus groups 
  • Interviews (stakeholder, user) 
  • Surveys
  • Analyzing existing data (analytics, social insights, etc.)
  • Observation/user testing
  • Content inventories and audits

There’s plenty of information available about these different methods. Take the time to figure out if quantitative, qualitative, or both research types are best for your goals. There are pros and cons to each, and varying levels of resources needed to plan, conduct, and analyze the results from your research.

Once the research has been conducted and your clients have started to understand their audience, the desired outcomes can be achieved and created—outcomes such as usable and functional tools and documents. Here, the options include:

  • Research reports 
  • Recordings of user testing 
  • Personas 
  • User/buyer journeys 
  • Content and style guidelines 
  • Updated project scopes and plans

What you need may vary depending on what the stakeholders’ expectations are, but you should ensure all outcomes are going to be used. Why else invest in the research in the first place? Style guides may be more likely to be used if online, rather than if they’re in a big manual left in a desk drawer. Personas can be displayed as posters so they are used and not ignored.

Successful research (and the resultant understanding of it) comes down to effective dissemination of the data and information to relevant people and teams.

Stakeholders are key here, but so too are:

  • Content creators: What research outcomes do they need to know to understand the audience they are writing for? Do they have to write in a certain voice and tone? How accurate and relevant is existing content? 
  • Designers: They need to know who they are designing for. Share personas with them, but not just via email—present them to the designers and explain how they came to exist. Ideally, get them involved in the process of creating personas. Anything around user and buyer journeys is important here, too. Even more so for... 
  • Developers: Let them know, based on the research completed, what functionality is needed. Ask them about technology requirements, and allow them to understand what customers want and how they want it.

How effective will sharing research and audience information be via email? Not very, I’d guess. Organize a lunchtime learning session to disseminate the information. Arrange individual presentations to key stakeholders to share the results in context to their own priorities and needs. Don’t just email documents around; talk through them. This gives you the chance to explain why the research took place, how, what the outcomes are, and ultimately, what was learned about the audience.

From here, the information needs to be used in practical ways—whether by informing content goals, influencing information architectures and hierarchies, creating taxonomies, making service or product changes, or tweaking marketing messages.

The perpetual loop

Research is a team effort, and a big one. Once the initial results are in, disseminated, and then actioned, it doesn’t end there. Customers’ needs change; company culture and identity evolves; industries react. The research process should never end. It may be a bigger investment up-front, with smaller and less intense cycles thereafter, but ensure that your clients never stop asking questions about their customers and validating the information they already have.

Even if additional research reaffirms what they already understand, that’s time well spent. They then know the information they are basing their decisions on is relevant and accurate. Chances are though, they’ll learn something new and understand even more about the very people they are targeting.

About the author

Rob Mills is content strategist at GatherContent. He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as a studio manager for a design agency.

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4. Audience Acquisition | Finding (and Keeping) Customers for Your Clients

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