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The general public myth (or, the whole world is not your user)

This feels like pretty basic stuff to me, but it’s incredibly important not to overlook the basics, so let’s talk about it.

I was prompted to think about this again when taking questions after talking at the GUADEC conference in Istanbul recently and someone asked about how you design a good experience when you’re designing for everyone – technical experts and newbies, people in countries around the world.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the answer is quite simple.

Just don’t. Don’t design for everyone. It’s impossible.

All you end up doing is designing something that makes everyone unhappy. Who needs that.

But why does this happen? I call it the myth of the general public.

So, there is this idea of the general public … but have you ever met *anyone* who considers themselves to be ‘the general public’? I don’t think I have.

This became particularly clear to me on a research project I was working on a few months ago where every single person I met told me about how unique their particular area of interest was, and how my client, a museum, only catered to ‘the general public’. The people I talked with complained that museums have ‘dumbed down’ so much because they are talking to ‘the general public’ and said that this made museums less useful for them to interact with, because of their specific interest and expertise.

This is what happens when we design for everyone – we ‘dumb things down’ to the point that they become useless or inefficient for most people. How does this happen? Well, because although everyone in the world might want to use your product or your website, they’ll want to use it in a very particular way.

In order to design your product well for them, you need to understand how they’ll use it and design to support that behaviour.

But wait! That means that all of a sudden the whole world is not my target audience! Horror!

Never fear, all is not lost. Despite the fact that you’ve design the experience beautifully for the specific audience (or audiences, you are allowed more than one!) that you have selected and understand well, other users will insist on using your product/service/website even if they are not in your target audience. In fact, the glowing recommendations that your audiences will provide will encourage others to use your service.

Yes, some audiences may have to work a little harder than others, but some audiences are better equipped to work harder. And at least the audience you *really* care about is being well looked after.

Josh Porter in his recently published book ‘designing for the social web’ (which I recommend that you read because if you don’t know everything that’s in his book, you should) makes this argument a lot more succintly than I have here so I’m going to quote you a slab:

Get as Specific As You Can

Question: Who is the audience you’re targeting?

Wrong Answer: Well, anyone really. Our application has a very broad set of uses.

Right Answer: People who do this very specific activity…

This is a discussion I had with an entrepreneur who was starting a new software company. He was targeting¬† his software at what he called ‘the general public’. And on the surface of things, this makes sense. He didn’t want to limit his softward by saying that it was for a particular audience, as that would make it harder to swim with the current if that strategy didn’t work out. (Investors like flexibility too). For whatever reason, his software ended up being for all audiences.

In practice, however, software built for the masses rarely works. Even in the cases where software has gone to the masses, it started off in a nice and then grew outward, as people realized that it doesn’t have to be used in any one way.

Targeting a broad audience is precisely the wrong approach. The more specific you can get about how to use your application, the more your software will resonate with your potential audience.

Del.icio.us, the social bookmarking tool, is about as broad a tool as you can get. Anybody who wants to bookmark web pages can use it. That is to say that their potential audience is everyone on the web.

Byut Del.icio.us doesn’t fall into the trap of designing for everyone. They do a good job providing specific use cases.

And, if your software is flexible and can be used by many different types of audiences, choose a few profitable/big ones and be specific about each. The more specific you get, the better.

See. What Josh said. The general public is a myth. Don’t design for it.

Is your sales pitch more important than your IA strategy?

So, last night I was thinking…

… it’s just as important to be able to come up with a solid IA strategy as it is to be able to sell in that strategy. To explain to your stakeholders why your approach is the right one, and why they should approve it.

So, what if you’re really quite good at this ‘sales’ process. Rationalising the approach that you’ve taken and being able to describe that in terms that are aligned with the overall project strategy.

You sound confident and authorative and you use words that your client may not understand (but probably won’t tell you because they don’t want to look dumb).

What if you’re just really good at selling bad ideas?

Well… its possible, isn’t it?

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