How to prioritise customer audiences

Mario Carabotta | Cogent

Mario Carabotta | Cogent

Senior Designer at Cogent. Paper and sharpie will do the trick.

You may have found an opportunity in the market but you don’t really know what type of person would use and buy your product or service. Or maybe you already have a minimum viable product out there, and you are starting to realise that your audience is more diverse than you anticipated.

In this post, I want to share my recommendations with anyone who is dealing with several potential customer audiences at the early stages of a startup idea. Hopefully I can give you a few ideas to help select the right users to start designing for.

As part of our commitment to helping founders who are driving positive social outcomes, we recently worked with Eve Lester, an independent researcher and consultant on migrants’ human rights. I’ll be using our experience with her to provide in the field examples of these techniques.

The context

Eve has worked for more than 25 years with a range of international organisations, and her deep expertise led her to participate in several publications, including a manual for building and strengthening monitoring of conditions in places of immigration detention, used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Eve came to us with a digital prototype focused on complementing the manual, in order to improve the temporary living environment for detainees, advocate for their rights and ultimately reduce the usage of detention.

Her goal was to refine the product concept, define a strategy and identify the costs involved in building an actual MVP so that she could pitch her idea and raise money to proceed to the next phase. It sounded like a great fit for a Clarify, and we jumped straight in!

What we didn’t know when we started the project, was that we would uncover more than 15 different potential audiences along the way. These included the detainees themselves, through to official authorised monitors, to various UN departments and policymakers.

One of the key questions that came up from the previous work done by the founder was Who is this tool for? We did our best to help answer this question by following the steps I’ve outlined below.

Define your purpose, articulate your goals

Take the time to determine your reason for being, as a team, and describe why this group of people is together in the first place. Define the organisation’s single underlying, timeless objective that should unify everyone. Call it your purpose.

To flesh out a draft purpose statement, we started with a simple Q&A. Once we identified the high level objectives for her idea, we then asked How?, 5 times. This allowed us to move backwards from long term goals to shorter term ones.

The result of this activity was a simple objectives framework that guided decisions along the way, made our lives easier, and kept everyone on the same page.

Whenever I felt uncertain about the direction of my work, I would refer back to the purpose framework we created. That helped to clarify my path, prioritise my activities, guide conversations with the rest of the team, articulate my rationale and be challenged on it – which was encouraged.

The impact that your team is going to make in the world should always drive your efforts. These impact-related statements become an empowering reminder. They are the fuel that gets you going, while also being an efficient way of sharing your idea when looking for partners or funding.

Map the ecosystem

The ecosystem map is a great supporting artefact that will create a shared language and understanding of the social, relational and institutional context. It also helps the team to focus on the most relevant areas to achieve your vision.

It’s a lean representation of how all the stakeholders relate to each other, when there is a direct or indirect connection, and some of the artefacts that they produce. 

Spend time with the team in front of a whiteboard mapping out all the actors, audiences and organisation types. Connect the ones that interact with each other and include relevant notes about the main actions and outcomes that result from their relationships.

The result doesn’t need to be pretty, the important thing is for the whole team to participate in it, so that everyone becomes familiar with the ecosystem.

Social problems are often hard to tackle because of how complicated they can get. Getting our heads around how organisations, bodies, and stakeholders interact with each other in the context of worldwide migration and refugees’ detention has been a challenge by itself.

NGOs, official monitors, lawyers, Governments, journalists, various UN departments, and most importantly the detainees themselves, create an intricate scheme of relationships that is hard to imagine and visualise. That’s where the ecosystem map was hugely valuable in this project.

We identified more than 15 different types of stakeholders involved in the detention centres’ world. There were many similarities, but also many differences in needs, problems and activities. Ultimately, most of them are working towards the same goal; helping people in detention and reducing the need for it. But the way each one of them is trying to achieve it is often different.

During the project, we referred back to the ecosystem map to better identify the people we were going to interview for our research, to review the audiences we wanted to design for first, while still keeping the context of the bigger picture.

Do the research

When you don’t know much about an audience, you usually want to start by talking to them…actually, listening to them. This will give you precious knowledge about people’s current activities and interactions, needs and pain points, and you might even be able to address some of your initial assumptions. Start with 5 to 10 representatives of the same audience to get a baseline picture of who you might be designing for.

But what if you have more than 10 different audiences? Are you going to be interviewing 50 or more people? That’s going to take ages! 

Unless you have an unlimited budget and time, you need to be a bit ruthless. Connect with 1 or 2 representatives for as many audiences you can reach out to. This will help you to understand the ecosystem a bit better, and quickly identify potential outlier audiences without committing to deep research on one group.

Pay particular attention to the comments and stories that determine if they could use your product or not, if they are already using one and what effort it would take for them to change. Remember that sometimes your toughest competitor is the status quo.

User interviews helped us to identify who was more open to adopting new products or services, based on the context they operate in. With even more confidence, it told us who wasn’t ready. This was gold for us. Quickly filtering out audiences, or de-prioritising them, helped us to create some boundaries before the ideation phase.

It wasn’t just about the user interviews though, there are other ways in which you might be able to filter out some user candidates, including desk research, business modelling and risk assessment.

A few questions to consider are:

  • Is the pool of potential users big enough to make the business idea sustainable in the long term?
  • Is the audience’s revenue big enough for them to be able to afford new software? 
  • Is it safe for a certain audience to use this product or could it cause harm to them?
  • Does one audience usage deter another to use it?

Some of these questions could be answered by deep-diving into reports, articles, competitors’ analysis and critical thinking.

Narrow your focus

You now have 3 elements that are helping you to prioritise your audiences.

Purpose and goals – If you know the objective for at least the first 2 years, you can prioritise the audiences that align with that timeframe. 

User research – after the first round of research, you hopefully have a bit more certainty around who could (not necessarily will!) adopt your product and who won’t.

Desk research – competition, market indicators, revenue and cost management for different organisations should help you identify where there is a gap that can be filled, and who might have the money to pay to solve some of the problems in that gap.

Based on the combination of these elements, you can now select the most suitable audiences for your MVP. 

This doesn’t mean you are going to forget about other audiences. You just de-prioritise anyone who isn’t your first potential user audience, but may be more relevant at a later stage.

In our project, we decided to tackle a specific set of problems faced by two audiences that have direct interaction, detention centres’ visitors and NGOs advocates.

This led to a more productive and focused sketch shop where, as a team, we came up with many ideas on how to solve some of the problems they are facing in their interaction with each other.

But what about the other audiences? If I don’t solve all the problems, I’m never going to achieve the vision!

We deliberately decided to focus on the audiences that showed more willingness to adopt first. We worked on the assumption that once you prove the product and gain traction with part of the ecosystem, then you can move onto providing services and products to other stakeholders.

Cutting through complexity

Designers often can’t disconnect their brain if a problem is still unsolved. I can only imagine how founders might struggle to take a break from their company vision as well. Working on social impact projects brings with it an enhanced feeling of commitment that pushes you to work harder and think deeper. Complex challenges take time to tackle and analyse, but you still need to surface from the depth of the ocean you’re swimming in, breathe and recharge, and only then get back to the intricacies of the problem you’re trying to untangle.

Break the problem down into smaller chunks, and try to address those, one at a time, one audience at a time. It will provide confidence in what you’re doing, and a sense of accomplishment towards the long term vision, without trying to be everything for everyone from day one.

As a values-based business, Cogent wants to help people like Eve to envision and build products for purpose. Do you recognise yourself in some of the challenges and unknowns we faced during this exciting project? We’re opening our doors for private one-on-one advisory sessions with senior people from our strategy, product, design and engineering teams. Visit our Social Impact Office Hours page to book your spot and move towards your vision!

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