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Audience Research vs. Usability Testing: Which to Use When

How can you understand how your audience perceives a digital tool, an online experience, or the world more broadly? How can you best put yourself in their shoes, gain insights from that process, and move forward to create an even better tool or experience? The most common approaches are through two research approaches: audience research and usability testing.

Human-centered design, design thinking, and research best practices all champion the value of putting people first. When it comes to audience research and usability testing, the two approaches can sometimes get mixed up, because after all, aren’t our audiences using our digital platform or tool? Understanding how they differ lies in the what, not the who.

But before we do that, let’s take a step back and focus on what we are hoping to achieve.

Defining your research goals

Broadly, audience research aims to gather a general understanding of what audiences think and care about, while usability testing aims to understand how people would and do behave during a specific experience. In a digital context, audience research may include understanding perceptions and expectations of a brand’s online content, and then testing the process by which a user engages with a particular online platform or digital experience. 

Before you can decide what you want to get out of research, you need to consider current audience groups, the priority of those groups, what needs they have, and what actions we want them to take when engaging with your organization. While this step can lead to the ideation and development of what your digital strategy should involve reaching audiences, it is also invaluable to validate what your audience needs and how to best engage them. This is where audience research comes in.

Audience research: Forming an understanding

Audience research can take many forms but usually looks like a mix of quantitative (concerned with discovering facts about social behaviors) and qualitative (concerned with collecting perspectives about behaviors and attitudes) collection methods.

Audience research is most commonly conducting through the following approaches:

Surveys: Often considered as quantitative research, surveys can include open-ended or multiple-choice questions. When you’re surveying a larger number of people, limit your survey to multiple-choice or other closed question types. This method allows you to analyze larger quantities of data more quickly, and identify trends or draw conclusions more easily. Closed-ended question surveys can be combined with interviews to gather both quantitative and qualitative data.

Interviews: If you have the time and budget, interviews are able to validate quantitative findings and uncover nuances in various audience groups’ experiences or gather more information about how you will tackle or narrow what you are collecting in a quantitative collection tool. They also allow you to dig deeper into people’s motivations and better understand how your audiences might experience the world, including routine challenges and barriers. While typically rich in nature, audience interviews should be taken as anecdotal feedback and not representative of an entire group or demographic.

Focus groups: Focus groups can provide similar value to interviews and you can often collect quantitative data about participants’ preferences for a particular experience or service. Ideally, your focus groups will be a fairly homogeneous group of strangers who share at least one trait in common that is relevant to your organization. The reason for this is that homogeneity levels the playing field and spurs guided conversation by creating a shared comfort with others within a peer group. It typically takes more than one focus group on any one topic to produce valid data that you can use. You’ll know you’ve conducted enough groups when you’ve reached topic saturation, that is, you aren’t hearing any new ideas or information.

Even if you feel that you know your audiences well, it’s important to conduct periodic research to confirm your assumptions. This is a crucial step to take before embarking on improvements to any brand, website, or tool. “Build it and they will come” unfortunately isn’t how things work! You need to make sure your time and financial investments will provide value for your audience.

Usability testing: Defining the experience 

Usability testing is a great way to understand if initial audience research has been accurately translated into an experience. The earlier you start this kind of research—typically with your first or second static iteration or prototype—the less time you will lose building something that might need to change later. It’s important to leave room for course correction if users reveal major bottlenecks or problems within the experience. Usability testing can take many forms but usually falls under either moderated or unmoderated testing. With any type of usability research, remind participants that it is the quality of the tool that is being tested, not the participant themselves.

Moderated usability testing 

This can be done in person or virtually. A moderated testing session is administered by a trained, unbiased researcher who introduces the test to participants and interacts with them throughout the test. Participants can ask questions and answer the researcher’s follow-up questions as the test progresses. In recent years, most moderated testing is done remotely through screen-sharing with the participants in their own home, using their own device and reporting on their environment as part of the testing process.

Moderated testing usually produces in-depth results due to the direct interaction between the researcher and test participants and typically begins to see trends around three users and confirmation of these trends at about five. The pro of this type of research is that it can result in rich information and what works and doesn’t, but it can also be time-consuming if you plan to test with a number of different audiences. 

Unmoderated usability testing 

This is done without direct supervision or administration by a researcher. The participants can take the test on their own time while their screen and interactions are recorded with timestamps on how long it takes to complete specific tasks. This approach is ideal for ensuring that you can involve key audiences that may not be able to meet in a live session. The cost of unmoderated testing is generally lower and thus easier to launch and execute; however, you are limited in your ability to discern as much nuance due to the lack of interaction and lack of ability to answer probing questions about why they took a certain action or couldn’t find something you asked them to look for.

Any insights you can glean from your audiences or users will help you better understand how they perceive the world and the role your organization plays in it. Taking a strategic approach to understanding your users’ experience by knowing the right questions to ask, at the correct point of your work, via the best method will always yield the most impactful results.

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