Gather information about your audiences

You can start to understand your audiences by thinking about them. But that's not enough. To really understand who they are, why they come, what they need, and how to write web content for them, you have to know them and their realities.

If you write your web content only on what you think your audiences are like, you will be writing from assumptions. If your assumptions are wrong, your content won't work.

Here are several suggestions for finding out about your audiences. Try to do them all; the ones at the end - actually watching, listening to, and talking with your web users and potential users of your site - are the most useful of all.

Think about your mission. Whom are you supposed to serve? What are you supposed to help them accomplish?

Read the emails that come through your Contact Us and other feedback links. Who is writing? What are they asking?

Talk to Marketing. Whom are they targeting as web users?

Talk to Customer Service. Who is calling with questions? What are those questions?

Get people who come to the site to fill out a short questionnaire. Ask people a few questions about themselves, why they came to the site, and whether they were successful in finding what they came for.

Watch and listen to people.

- If your web site mirrors a brick-and-mortar business (e-commerce, banking and other financial institutions, travel, and so on), spend time in the physical location observing and listening to customers.

- If yours is a government site, realize that government agencies often have "brick-and-mortar" equivalents. Spend time in a local office of the agency watching and listening for whatever is relevant to your web content. This might mean watching as people come to renew their driver's license or get a permit or sign up for benefits or ask for tax forms.

- If you are creating an intranet, spend time observing and listening to employees from different areas and in different jobs.

Interview people who use or might use your web site. Use these techniques:

- contextual interviewing (where you watch and listen as people do their own work)

- critical incident interviewing (where you ask people to tell you about specific times that they used the site; sometimes, you can also have them show you what they did)

Do usability testing of the current content. Watch and listen to usability test participants work with your web site. Also ask them about themselves, their needs, and their ways of using content.

For information on many techniques for understanding your web users, see Courage and Baxter, 2004.

Designing a good survey is not trivial. A good book on survey design is Dillman, 2007.

For ideas on watching, listening to, and talking with people at their work, see Hackos and Redish, 1998.

For information on contextual interviewing, see Holtzblatt, Wendell, and Wood, 2005.

For information on the critical incident technique, see the Wikipedia article on that topic.

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