I spend my college years as a cook and worked with some great chefs, one of whom imparted some wisdom on how to tell if someone had solid experience in cooking. “Hand them a knife and ask them to dice something,” he said.
Someone who has less experience will grip the knife like a hammer and try to hold their fingers away (so as not to cut themselves), whereas someone with experience will hold the knife like a drumstick and use the knuckles on their opposing hand to guide the knife.
A Litmus Test for UX Professionals
User Experience (UX) has its own version of the cook/knife litmus test. It is how well the UX professional identifies, recruits for and tracks key characteristics that affect website or application usage.
While some people are more comfortable with the word “demographics,” I recommend against using it. Demographics can be a distracting term, subtly focusing UX researchers and analysts on superficial classifications instead of user characteristics that will directly influence how people use a website or application.
For instance, when thinking of demographics people tend to think about things like age or gender, but you have to ask yourself do those things actually matter for how your website or application is used?
Assuming younger users are more tech savvy than older users is massive generalization and may not apply to your users. Regardless, the issue isn’t age it’s technical knowledge, but if you focus on age you may end up recruiting young luddite users and older savvy users throwing off your results.
If you’re testing hardware, like a mouse, how much difference is there really between how a woman and man would use it? Gender isn’t likely statistically relevant, especially when compared to differences in hand/eye coordination or left-handed/right-handed users if the mouse is contoured.
UX professionals that take great care in clearly identifying key user characteristics get better results.
An Audience Matrix – Mapping Your Target Audience
Personally, I recommend creating an Audience Matrix at the beginning of any UX project. Use analytics, customer contact data (calls, chat sessions, emails, social, etc.), intercept surveys, Marketing/Sales data; anything that will give you some insight into who your customers are, who is most satisfied using your product, who is least satisfied and the key characteristics that are the primary drivers in how the user feels about their experience.
You’re looking for anything that might affect the users’ experience: domain knowledge, physical location, environmental factors (e.g. lighting, noise, etc.), job role/title, technical savvy, types of devices used, connection type/reliability, physical/mental disabilities and many more. I’ve even included job performance for a portal intended to help struggling employees.
In addition to the key characteristics, be sure to get a sense of the proportion of your users who have the characteristic. If people-managers only make up 20% of your target audience, you don’t want recruit five of them for a seven person user test.
Compile all of your gathered data and track it on an Audience Matrix. Create a spreadsheet listing key characteristics in vertical columns, grouped by category (e.g. domain knowledge as the parent category and low, medium, high as three columns within that group). Be sure to list the proportion just under each characteristic (e.g. if half of your users are located in the US, make sure 50% is listed under US so you know how many users of that type you need).
The Audience Matrix should then guide your recruitment. As you screen users for field research or testing, check off where they fit within each category and the specific characteristic to ensure you get an accurate representation of your target audience.
But wait, you’re not done!
Make sure you continue to use the matrix as you gather results from your field research. If four interviewees stated they couldn’t find information on your website or thought your application was too difficult to use, who were they? Do they all share a key characteristic? You’ll find that 2/3rds of the time, the trends are based on key characteristics. An Audience Matrix will help with correlation.
Now you have some real data. It isn’t that just two interviewees thought your site was difficult to use, it’s that all of your color-deficient users (i.e. have trouble telling certain colors apart, like on a blue and black dress for instance) found your site difficult. So while you may have dismissed 2 users as an outlier, now you know you might have a problem with your color scheme.
Continue to use your Audience Matrix to inform the creation of your Personas and Scenarios and track all testing results (prototype or lab) back to key characteristics. Be sure to include any and all trends you find in your reporting.
To get the best UX results, you must know your users. Successful UX professionals know this and their attention to and insistence on creating an Audience Matrix is how they get best results.