Session 3: Understanding the audience: what are the lessons learnt from other sectors

Audio from the session
To downlod the MP3 click here

Chris Batt gave a relaxed and extremely informative presentation on why we should be understanding e-content audiences, how best to do so, and why it’s so critical to e-content sustainability.

Delegates raised several interesting points in the Q+A at the end of the presentation, including the difficulty of grouping individuals who have different needs at different times, and also the question of whether or not we are stifling innovation in our eagerness to give users what they say they need.

The session was illustrated with an extremely comprehensive presentation, which is available at the end of this post. This blog post therefore covers the main themes covered, rather than replicating the detail of the presentation.

Batt began by introducing a recent report from the Strategic Content Alliance (SCA), which aimed to investigate how public sector organisations understand the people using their digital services.

The aim of the report was to look at current audience analysis and modelling, and to try to understand how much organisations didn’t yet understand about their audiences. The ultimate aim of the SCA is to nurture collaboration in the development of a UK e-content framework.

The first report was intended as phase 1, and is another report under development, which will go into more detail.

There are similar projects taking place outside of the UK, most notably Matapihi in New Zealand and Europeana in Europe.

Batt explained that the natural evolution of e-content has meant that in many cases, the technology has come first, rather than people’s needs. He believes that in order to evolve, we must now reconsider our audiences and their needs, and adapt the technology to them.

“There is plenty of money in this country to digitise everything, but we haven’t put together a compelling narrative to reach it,” said Batt.

The Government is keen for everyone to have access to the internet (eg the digital equalities strategy and consultation on informal adult learning) without fully considering what that entails – what content people need to reach, and how they reach it.

“Apprehending knowledge to your advantage”

Knowledge is a process not a commodity, and this is key to developing e-content, explained Batt. Content has to be based around individuals, or groups of individuals. We need to understand the behaviours and needs of people. Behaviours are dictated by environments.

Technology should be invisible, and that’s when it works best. We should design systems for people, and always with bus drivers in mind – not because bus drivers are any less intelligent or important than academics, but because when an academic steps out of his/her field, he/she reverts to the knowledge base of a bus driver.

With e-based services, unless you’re in that prior knowledge area and you know exactly where you want to go to, it becomes a learning journey into the unknown. The system needs to be driven by the customer, not the institution.

“The online revolution is like a train with no destination” said Batt, paraphrasing The Guardian.
The interviews

Batt then went into the detail of the SCA report. The report was based on 18 interviews with 31 people, and the interviews revealed that generally, interaction with audiences is patchy at best.

Some conclusions from the interviews:

  • E-content is “a rich but complex landscape”
  • Now is the appropriate time to be investigating audiences more fully
  • Organisations are starting to look at web 2.0 resources and user personalisation
  • The current tools for quantitative evaluation leave much to be desired
  • There is also overlap in commercial licenses

Batt also stressed that we need a common language in order to be able to talk about the issues. For example, some organisations use the term ‘user’, others ‘audience’, and others ‘consumer’ – we need to agree how we are describing the landscape.

We also need a shared approach, and Batt believes that the SCA report is a good start for this.

The stage 2 of the report will build on the initial report and go into far more detail.

Questions from delegates

Humphrey Southall, University of Portsmouth: “We were funded by the big lottery, and we were asked for usage figures, but that was never seen again – what happened to those numbers?”

CB: “There was an analysis of the impact of the material, we were at the point in the development were there were a lot of unknowns. Now we wouldn’t do it again in the same way. If you want to demonstrate value you have to think about the end value.”

Humphrey Southall, University of Portsmouth: “In the JISC funding usage isn’t a factor at all, which I find bizarre.”

Emma Beer, JISC: “It’s a good point, what do you do with those figures. The second phase of the report will be looking at how people use that data.”

Lydia Lau, University of Leeds: “Is modelling the second phase?”

CB: “Yes, it’s about trying to create a matrix of audience types. The modelling is about trying to create a manageable list of types of users which we can then analyse. Organisations are using their investment to improve their resources, but modelling is important. It will be part of the second part, but it will require further work they can match to users.”

“There are commercial tools for the analysis of sales to audiences, for example. If you can map where people come from, physically or virtually, you can use match against other factors, such as socio-economic groups. Ie the ‘white van man’ is one such category. They break down users.

“We should start to think about using these kinds of tools that commercial organisations use. Most commercial organisations use 10% of their budget on this, and in their early days it will be more as they live or die by the take up of their services. It would be interesting to look at the levels of investment that would make a difference in HE.”

Matt Holland, Bournemouth University: “There is a project to digitise radio programmes, that has come from academics, it’s creating a resource that they know users will use.”

Emma Beer, JISC: “Did they make any changes once they’d started to disseminate it? That’s something else we’re interested in.”

Matt Holland, Bournemouth University: “It’s early days so it’s difficult to test, but we’re looking into it.”

CB: “ There are some web 2.0 approaches which are very interesting. The Powerhouse museum in Sydney opened its catalogue of collections so people could add their own tags to items online. It started with an editorial function, but they quickly realised it was generating world-wide interest in their collection. As a result they claim they have the formation of the worlds first virtual special interest group in slide-rules! There are all sorts of avenues to be explored.”

Humphrey Southall, University of Portsmouth: “We had log analysis which told us a lot about how people use the site. That’s affected the redesign. But the log analysis software we’re using is not very good.”

CB: “There are bits of research about redesign sites based on how people arrive there. An example is an arthritis website, which was intended to help people find out more about the condition. They discovered that almost everyone arrived deep into the site, and most users had little interest in actual arthritis, they wanted to know about things like bad backs, for example. They did audience research and redesigned the site, with a quiz on each page to get people more involved and understand the site.”

Delegate: “We lose information about our users. We don’t have much profiling. We are loathe to put up surveys on our site, it can be intrusive and negative rate of response rates.”

Emma Beer: “Is this where focus groups can help? We’re interested in how commercial companies do this, as they really understand their markets. It’s something the public sector could do better.”

Peter White, ProQuest: “We use focus groups. Just recently we’ve been looking at web 2.0 technologies’ applicability to HE. We followed an undergraduate for a day, to look at how they research. People are erratic! We created a persona for each user group. The resources have to respond to the persona’s requirements. The John Johnson collection had a beta stage that was tested on undergraduates at Oxford. Changes were made following that. Its difficult to incorporate all suggestions as they can sometimes be radical, but thinks like terminology are simple to change and fairly effective.”

Emma Beer: “We’ve heard 2 or 3 examples in this room, but if you feel you’re not equipped to understand your audiences, what tools could we provide? Or do you think it’s not important?”

Lydia Lau, University of Leeds: “Do you need different sets of tools for different users? It might be unrealistic to look for one kind of tool.”

CB: “I think that’s right. We need to work out how to get a better understanding of supply and demand, or supply and possible use. At national level my job is to persuade people about the value of this stuff.”

Mark Stiles, Staffordshire University: “ I can’t help thinking that an individual’s use of tools, or access to resources might not be about what type of audience they are, but their motivation – might be contextual. Are you looking at that?”

CB: “We’re trying to look at everything. You won’t inhabit a persona all the time, it’s the set of needs that we need to satisfy. Everyone is multiple audiences. We all have different needs at different times, but also the same content can be used to satisfy different needs.”

Emma Beer: “There are other ways too. At the University of Washington Library they put their digital collections on Wikipedia, and usage of collections has gone up 50%. There are different tools available to help resources be found.”

Mark Stiles, Staffordshire University: “One of my team created multiple web 2.0gateways in, and it was very successful.”

CB: “I’m sure that will be what the future will be about, it’s about being more structured.”

CB: “What’s your immediate reaction to all this? Does more effort need to be put into audiences and users?” There are murmurs of agreement. “Would you be prepared to change your funding priorities?”

Anthony Troman, British Library: “As money gets tighter, you’ve got to be sure you’re delivering services that people want. So user analysis is more important for commercially-funded projects. It’s also good for justifying for funding from the Government.”

Mark Stiles, Staffordshire University: “If we don’t do this, people make assumptions about how learners will behave and use things, and then you spend a lot of money producing something that people use in different ways.”

Emma Beer: “Beta testing is critical, because you can’t assume how the audience is going to respond.”

Roy Kalawsky, Loughborough University: “While I agree broadly, there is a danger that you go too far down route, and then you’re satisfying only what people think they need, it rules out innovation and what the audience don’t know about yet.”

Emma Beer: “Absolutely right. We’re looking at future scenario planning for that.”

Claire Marsh, Leeds College of Music: “Who you’re aiming at also depends who is paying you.”

CB: “Yes – and also nationally the funder is the tax payer. It’s about access. Is the stuff presented to you in a way that is meaningful? It’s a national debate. Part of next stage for us is to have that discussion with those involved at top levels of institutions, and if there are boundaries, and what added value is for other people.”

Emma Beer: “There are top-down pressures, for example the Government’s emphasis on life-long learning.”

“We’re also in partnership with Canadian Heritage Network who are experts in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), and we’re hoping to make their workshops available here in the UK before the end of the year. It will be publicised in our monthly newsletter, which you can find on our website.

“I’m afraid that’s the end of the session, but thank you very much Chris Batt, and everyone for attending!”