audience segmentation – making sure you don’t miss anything

Organizations fear risk, and as a response to that fear, employees dutifully try to record everything that could possibly be of importance. In audience segmentation, this means capturing hundreds of variables, which quickly becomes a barrier to actually defining and using the segments. Instead, use a behavioral perspective instead of these variables, and re-define how you approach audience segmentation.

(This post was originally published at Adaptive Path. Since Adaptive Path became a part of another corporation in late 2014, the post is replicated below for posterity.)

Behavioral Audience Segmentation

Design research is something that is widely practiced to produce anything from a better version of tax software to a new toy for kids. Its purpose is to understand customers (users) and match products to them. To date, most corporate and nonprofit research has focused either on persuading someone towards a “purchase decision” or asking current users what they’d like added to a product.

Smart organizations now want more: they expect design research to solve the sophisticated problem of meeting users’ broader goals. Organizations want design research insights to offer user perspectives wider than their opinions on one application. Ultimately, they want to spark ideas for “killer products” that will positively impact the company’s bottom line. It is not a surprise that organizations want their research to be as complete as possible and to understand as many user needs, concerns, and preferences as they can so opportunities aren’t missed and user segments aren’t left in the cold. Here’s one scenario that I encountered:

I’d been hired to conduct a design research project to determine how the Human Resources department at a 35,000-employee, multinational corporation should redesign their intranet. The project’s goal was to better understand what resources, tools, and options that the company’s employees wanted and needed.

“We know a lot about our users,” said my client proudly in our project launch meeting. “We’ve organized a lot of data about them.” She then displayed a spreadsheet with over nineteen different facets that her team had used to classify their employees (users), ranging from management level and geographic location to business alignment, gender, and aptitude for computers. Each of the nineteen facets had 2-10 sub-categories under them pushing the total number of facets to over 65.

“All these parameters will affect how an employee might use the intranet,” she continued. “We were afraid that we missed something, so we’re also considering including career goals, what they value about their work, whether they’re an acquired employee, and things like that.”

After perusing my client’s extensive spreadsheet, an executive voiced the concern that had become paramount to many gathered at our meeting, “How are we going to be able to interview representatives of each of these groups in the space of a few weeks? It would mean talking to hundreds of people.”

This wasn’t the first time that I’d encountered this scenario. Organizations often compose extensive lists of user-experience facets that they want to use to define every possible type of user. They track as many facets as possible because they don’t want to miss anything that might be important to any one user or group. The extensive list of facets is then used when embarking on a project, either to map solutions or plan design research.

So, the crux of the problem is this: how does an organization be complete yet efficient when conducting research? When the business, budget, and time constraints call for 20-30 research interviews, how can all of the facets of each user get coverage? And how can you convince your co-workers and top ranking executives at your company that the research you’re conducting is valid and that every facet has been addressed?

The answer is a slight adjustment of perspective.

Ask yourself what facets affect your users’ highest-level goals as defined within the scope of the application (or product) you are providing. In my client’s case, would a young female part-time factory worker in Malaysia have different goals than a senior male administrator in the office headquarters regarding the company’s holiday schedule, vacation time, pay, or retirement programs? Are the goals that each of these users is trying to accomplish as significantly different as the role they perform at that company?

What I’ve described is the first step in a technique I call behavioral audience segmentation.

Behavioral segmentation is a technique that defines your target audience by the approach they take to achieve a goal. My client didn’t need to segment 35,000 employees by the exact role they played, where they were located, their computer aptitude, their career goals, etc. She could classify them instead into four audience segments based on what they were trying to accomplish regarding all aspects of their relationship with the Human Resources department.

Interviewing a handful of representatives from each audience segment (versus hundreds of users) is much more achievable within budget and time constraints. And it’s simple to explain which facets affect the user segments’ goals to co-workers and executives by showing how you derived the segments from the all-encompassing variable list that you started with.

Most importantly, behavioral segmentation puts your team in the right frame of mind for insightful design research that very probably will uncover that “killer product idea.”