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Design Series: Understanding Audience Needs

This is the first in a four-part blog series, Building Trust and Credibility Through Design, based on a webinar led by Forum One’s Vice President of Design. Watch the webinar

Understanding audience needs is the core of good design. For mission-driven organizations in particular, forging deep connections with audiences is paramount. The questions we hear often are about how organizations can identify and adapt designs to meet the evolving needs of their audiences and ensure that the mission resonates deeply. 

While understanding audience needs is the basis of all good strategy and user experience processes, end users often get lost or deprioritized in the design phase. I want to share a few of my favorite techniques for making sure that you’re identifying and adapting to the evolving needs of your audience while designing.

Build internal trust first: A soccer lesson

I wasn’t an amazing soccer player, but I did enjoy playing on soccer teams throughout my childhood. I was always a midfielder, charged with passing the ball to my teammates and knowing where they were at any moment. 

Making sure I got the ball to the right person at the right moment allowed my teammates to trust in me, and the fact that we were able to score goals over and over again built credibility in our collective skills. “Passing the design ball” on projects similarly builds skills amongst team members. And that strategic teamwork translates to efficiency on the other end, building products that audiences want to engage with because they’ve been thoroughly tested and designed.

But how do you build trust like a team? I think that the most powerful design technique is to engage in active listening and empathy-building exercises with your internal stakeholders. By continuing to understand the challenges, desires, and aspirations of your audiences, you can tailor your designs to resonate on a deeper level. Here are some ways to practice that effort:

Active Listening Sessions

I encourage structured listening sessions where team members take turns sharing their thoughts and concerns, while others actively listen without interruption. This fosters a culture of open communication and empathy within the team. Just like a good soccer coach does for their team.

While I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art working on a website redesign, we recognized the need to be transparent with our internal audiences and started hosting a series of monthly open forum presentations called “Website Wednesdays.” All museum employees were welcome to join and ask questions, many of which led to important design conversations later on.

Collaborative Brainstorming

Encourage team members to participate in collaborative brainstorming sessions where everyone has an opportunity to contribute ideas and solutions. Create a safe space where all voices are valued and respected. And practice, practice, practice!

Brainstorming together is another great way to get your teams working towards the same goals. For example, a quick “Crazy 8s” exercise only takes a few minutes and allows everyone a safe and open space to ideate. Crazy 8s is a fast-sketching exercise that challenges people to sketch eight distinct ideas in eight minutes. You’ll generate more great ideas than you’re able to squeeze into one product.

Role-playing Exercises

Engaging in role-playing exercises allows your team members to take on the perspective of different user personas. This can help them gain insight into the challenges and experiences faced by their audience. And just like soccer, you have to run these drills more than once to be successful!

Personas can be tough to define and get a hold of but with the help of trained consultants, you can leverage them into valuable design tools. 

Building Trust with End Users

Shifting to the other side of the game, getting the trust of your end users is the way to ensure that the designs that you and your teams pour your time and energy into are engaging and continue to be used by audiences past that initial look. Here are methods for approaching user engagement that build and rely on trust:

Surveys and Feedback Forms

Listen to the crowd! Create surveys and feedback forms to gather insights from your external audience. Ask questions about their needs, preferences, pain points, and desired outcomes related to your product or service. These can be simple and quick frameworks—no need to over-engineer them.

For example, if you’re a nonprofit looking to stand up a new initiative for a specific audience, launch a quick, five-question survey on a related section of your website as you’re in the planning phase. Timing these types of feedback with new initiatives can help point your design in the right direction before it’s off the ground, which can save you lots of valuable time and money.

User Testing Sessions

Conducting user testing sessions, where participants interact with your product or prototype, will provide that real-time feedback that is invaluable to informing designs as they’re in progress. This is like that friendly game or scrimmage with another team. You’re going to be able to observe their actions and listen to their verbal feedback to uncover where there’s issues and areas for improvement. Getting this type of feedback from your end users is key to making sure that these experiences really resonate with them. 

For example, a couple years ago, Forum One worked with a prominent think tank that was creating a brand new product using brand new technology. They had nothing more than a general idea for the interface, and only a number of loose assumptions. We used a simple, paper-based sketch to help crystalize their idea into a design, and then built an HTML prototype. We tested that prototype, iterated on it, and tested it again. This prototype and the successful tests helped the organization obtain grant funding to build out the working product.

Focus Groups

Don’t forget to talk to your fans directly! Organize focus groups made of members of your target audience. By facilitating discussions around specific topics or features, you’re allowing participants to share their opinions, experiences, and suggestions to improve and guide those designs.

If you’re a government agency trying to guide the design of a complex feature on your site, just talking with folks may not be enough to get the specific notes you need. Try using creative stimuli like prototypes to provide the context that will get you that invaluable feedback. Paper prototypes and sketches are cost-effective and an easy way to make sure that your focus group understands what you’re trying to design. They can even be done virtually!

Audience Interviews

Pick a few core supporters and schedule interviews with them to delve deeper into their experiences and perceptions. This type of qualitative feedback is user gold! Use a mix of open-ended and probing questions to uncover valuable insights and anecdotes.

Interviews like these can be more time-consuming but being able to dig deeper into a user’s response, asking them relevant questions, is much easier than attempting to parse a moderated response without having access to that interviewee.

The good thing is that if you’re an organization with a limited budget or shortened timeline, you don’t have to conduct a ton of interviews to start to see patterns in the feedback. Even five 30-minute sessions can start to get you the leads you’re looking for. 

Social Media Listening

Lastly, check the socials. Monitor social media channels for mentions and chatter about your brand or industry. Pay close attention to what people are saying and look for common themes or pain points. You can then use this information to inform your design decisions, balanced with the other feedback, of course.

Next: Now that you’ve got good ideas about building trust with internal and external stakeholders, the second part of this series will delve into how to use design tools to convey reliability, transparency, and integrity.

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