Skip to content

Down with substitute thinking, properly research your target audience

“We know just what they want” is a common statement to come across while working on a project. It is expressed by people who fancy that their experience gives them the knowledge necessary to use substitute thinking. To decide for others what they want. The hope is that this will speed things up. However, it can lead to discovering later in the process that you are going about things the wrong way. Surely this is not a desired scenario. It would be much better to sympathize with your target group as much as possible.

There is no such thing as organizations

Vince Lombardi, former head coach of the National Football League club Green Bay Packers,managed to lead his team to five title wins in seven years. A historical achievement which was partially due to his views about putting a team together. He said: “The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual”. Through an understanding of what motivated each member of the team, he managed to use them together to achieve his goal: winning the NFL title.

Vince’s words can be applied to his sport and also to organizations in general. Organizations, after all, are nothing more than groups of people aiming to achieve a mutual goal within a certain time period. This goal could be anything. Sports related (“we want to win the NFL again this year”), commercial (“increase revenue by 20% this calendar year”), charitable (“help those in our direct environment with lesser living conditions”), visionary (“the most innovative in the area of XYZ”); and so forth. To win yet another NFL title, Vince Lombardi was primarily dependent on his players and staff. By motivating them in the right way and at the right time, he was able to reach the collective goal.  

It is no different in business. There too, we strongly depend on people. Those in the target group are key to success and therefore to the reaching of our goal. These are, after all, the people whom you want to bind to you. To achieve this, you need to understand the people, their motivations and their problems. 


Don’t prompt someone else

But how familiar are you with what your target audience wants? With what they think of your organization, goods and services? With how you can help them, so that they will direct their attention to you, in a world in which they are inundated by organizations vying for their attention?

“We do know what our users want” is, therefore, one of the most dangerous sentences possible. It is a direct form of substitute thinking. You base what you do on what you believe a group of people believes. Since you continue passing on information, the message loses its nuance and can even be remembered and/or interpreted incorrectly. Instead, you are encouraged to get out there and get in touch with those whom you are targeting. It is the essence of Design Thinking for a reason.

Aggregating information already available within your organization is a great first step towards a reality check. It will give you fair amount of insight into your target audience, their problems and motivations.

Take a journey through your own organization

Have a chat with your colleagues in Marketing. They will have plenty of information readily available about demographics, preferences and possibly even past market research. And what to think of colleagues responsible for the digital products you offer, such as websites and apps? They can provide insight into how the products are being used, by digging into the Analytics. Maybe you’re lucky and they have conducted tests themselves already (usability, A/B, multi variance tests etc).

And while you are collecting information, your next stop should be the people of customer service. They are in direct contact with the people of your target audience on a daily basis and will know like no other what questions these people constantly pose. They will also know how your target audience feels about you and particular actions. Another trick is to visit some of the social media yourself and see what people are saying about you.

Continue your journey to your colleagues in sales. Account managers, client service managers, salespeople, you name it. These are the people who know what motivates the target audience to take real action. Additionally, they will have the best anecdotes and testimonials possible. It is therefore most definitely worth it to get them talking.

Nuance is necessary

So now you have retrieved the shared image, but you still need to find out whether this information is consistent with reality. Information from your own organisation is, after all, extremely valuable, and is still second hand information. Ideally of course, you also obtain qualitative information first hand. Something you have heard or experienced yourself will provide essential nuance to the the aggregated picture. It will also ensure you don’t see the amount of data, but the actual people.

There is a perception that conducting qualitative research takes a lot of time and money, which leads to it being disregarded. That is unfortunate, because it doesn’t need to be a long process of getting the right candidates and conducting the research in a (proprietary) usability lab. It is possible to get it done on faster and on a smaller scale.

Determine your focus and get out there

Though you may have an idea of what makes the people in your target group tick, it is still valuable to consider it for longer. This can help make a conscious choice about the correct representation of the group. Once you have this tweaked, you are ready to get out there. How? Making contact with those in your target group is quick and easy.

Friends and family tests
One of the most accessible ways is to engage people on the street. This can seem a little intrusive, so it is essential to find the right moment. Look for a café near the office or a train, bus or metro station. People are waiting anyway and will often be prepared to chat. Is your target group not out on the street? No problem. A location of your company where people enter is very suitable for field testing too.

Contextual interviews
People get involved with you, your product and service, from a particular context. That statement seems blatantly obvious, but at the same time this context is not taken into account often enough. Interviewing people in their “natural” environment will show how they truly interact, providing you with valuable insights. For instance, do you notice people using your digital product primarily in their cars? Adjust your interface accordingly and think of technical solutions enabling people to continue focusing on the road. 

Shadowing and service safaris
Immerse yourself into someone else’s world and observe them. Find a public place where people interact with you. For instance, while we are working on digital solutions, there are often analog solutions already available. Observe the “real” world and see what people say and do. Be alert and pay attention to non verbal communication such as body language and micro expressions on people’s faces. These subconscious signals can tell you an awful lot, yet these are precisely the things people can’t explicitly put their fingers on during interviews.

A Day in the Life of
Do you want to get a broad overview of how people spend their days? To find out how you can help them improve it, for instance? Then this method is worth considering. You ask people to write down as much of possible of what they do during one day, complemented with questions of what you specifically want to know. 

Insights lead to value

Empathizing with your target audience and getting real contact with them is always a good idea, regardless of which method you choose. When you start talking to them, observing and analyzing, you will see that you uncover a lot more detail than if you try to come up with everything by yourself. Combine this detailed information and segment your target audience based on their motives and problems in user definitions. The differences will provide valuable insights which you can grasp in order to be of value, instead of doing this based on department, geographic location or age. And because you give people something that is of added value, they will bind themselves to you. This has advantages for both of you, as it brings you a step closer to your own goal. So: get out there!

Explore more articles