Audience Profiling is (Usually) Rubbish

Some “new media” projects don’t get out of the conceptualisation stage in time before they pile up, train-crash style, in a chaotic dash to build and implement the thing by the go-live date. Worse, the usually lavish attention paid during the initial (rather sleepy) stages of work on “visioning,” mission statements and the construction of elaborate site maps means that by the time it’s build time, the hard work of thinking through the mechanical detail of how the site should actually operate then has to be rushed. I can’t help thinking that’s why so many sites with good ideas are let down by poor execution, and I’ll probably be adding plenty more articles on that theme as time goes on. But for now, the spotlight turns to the art of “audience profiles” (AKA “pen profiles”, “user sketches” or “user journeys”).Of all the activities that take place at the “concept” stage of most large web developments, the work of audience profiling seems to deliver the least value for money. This usually involves some people on the project team brainstorming “portraits” of the kinds of users they think will be using the site. They call them “portraits” because the word “stereotype” is rather awkward – but that’s exactly what they are:

John is a 35-year-old bank clerk with a wife, three-year old daughter
and a Ford Mondeo. His favourite gadget is his Nokia GX5780 mobile phone.
He used to play hard ten year ago, but is now a Responsible Father
and would like to find out as much about male grooming products as he can
before he sets off to work in the morning...

After about a week’s work “refining” them and putting these fictional users’ “journeys” in to various contexts, the portraits are then formally presented to the client for approval. The idea is then that they will somehow guide the rest of the design process so that the site meets the needs and expectations of the intended audience. Which again would seem a sensible thing to do. If you can pull it off, that is.

Problems, Problems…

The obvious problem with this, and particuarly if it’s done by a third party (e.g. a new media agency or brand consultant) is that without proper audience research, it tends to just tell people what they want to hear. The approach reminds me of the “Nutri-Matic Drinks Synthesizer” described in Douglas Adams’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which, fans will recall:

...claimed to produce the widest possible range of drinks personally
matched to the tastes and metabolism of whoever cared to use it. When
put to the test, however, it invariably produced a plastic cup filled
with a liquid which was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

And so it is with audience profiling without audience research. After all the song and dance about Archers drinkers and Sunday Times readers, how exactly would the site be different if all this profiling work was reduced to a simple confirmation from the client of the intended audience; e.g. for a bank: “buyers of financial products between 18 and 35”, for a brewery: “larger drinkers over 35” etc.? Rather boring perhaps, but if it allows the project to progress towards actually creating something tangible rather than bogging down in discussions about theoretical “journeys” then it should be encouraged.

The fact that there’s no real connection between the construction of an elaborately detailed set of stereotypical “users” of the site, and the rest of the development process is also notable. For example, most attempts to apply traceability from requirements back to the profiles (e.g. stating that a bulletin board called “Guns N’ Girls” is there for the “Fast-Living Singles” as opposed to the “Stay-at-Home Potatos”) usually peters out pretty quickly because it pretty soon becomes clear that most of the site’s content applies to all of the profiles to some extent – a tacit recognition that stereotypes are just that: broad generalisations. The reality is that most people’s profiles overlap.

Assuming no attempt at actual audience resaerch is made (which in my experience is the norm), then as with much new media activity, it would seem that audience profiling isn’t a serious development technique, but another aspect of the agency/client mating ritual. It allows the people building the site elaborately to demonstrate that they understand their brief. In this respect, it’s also related to that other new media totem: the site map. Of course, you can’t have a site without some initial concepts, and I’m not resisting the need to do what needs to be done to identify audiences, their needs and expectations. But there’s a limit to how far this should be taken without getting out a clipbord and asking some intended users. All too often, by the time the project has gone from smoothly gliding down the runway, to crashing full-steam into the buffers of an immovable deadline, using hindsight to know when that limit was reached isn’t actually very helpful.

This essay was originally written February 2003.