You Are Not Your Audience

By James Ellis

Right now, go look at your website. In about ten seconds you can probably think of five small things you’d like the site to do better, whether it’s load faster, sort product listings a certain way, maybe even (shudder) that the logo should be a little bigger.

Maybe all those things are going to get done, but maybe they aren’t the right things to focus on. This year, you’ve got a limited amount of resources to manage your site, and you can’t do everything, so you have to make choices. Instead of making choices with your gut based on what you see and what annoys you, maybe you should ask your audience.

I’ve heard the argument that you are enough like your audience that you don’t need to conduct field tests or focus groups or surveys. You don’t need their feedback because you know best on behalf of your audience.

I’m going to set you straight: you are not your audience. It’s not that you can’t understand what your audience wants, it’s the fact that you are a content expert where your audience is not.

Perspective is Important

You are blinded by the curse of knowledge (and yes, maybe this is the first time that someone has said that you are cursed by knowledge, but we’ll let that go). You know, after months and years on the site, where every button is, where every button leads, what every obscurely-named tool is designed to do and who should use it. And that’s the problem: your audience doesn’t have the same knowledge.

You have maybe, MAYBE three seconds to get your brand new user to understand who you are, what you’re here for and a good idea of how to proceed or they bounce. Bounce, the scariest word in any user experience designer’s vocabulary. They came, they saw, they bolted. Sure, some of your audience isn’t looking for what you sell, but without a well-considered home page or entry page that helps frame your story to make it super easy to comprehend, some of your bounces are going to be potential, now lost, customers.

Design for your Customer, Not Yourself

Look, I know you. You’re gonna name every online tool something clever and cute, but something that completely obscured the purpose of the tool because you came up with the name by yourself in a hurry as you were about to push the product out. I’m guessing that’s how Qwikster/Netflix happened.

Or maybe you think that a series of big pretty pictures of food in your restaurant site should push down things like location and hours.

Have you asked your users what they want? What they come to your web site for?

You don’t need to spend hundreds or thousands for a professional focus group or eye-tracking studies. There are plenty of cheap and free ways to collect simple information on what your users want. For example, will put a super-simple four-question survey on your site and gets to the heart of the issue, helping you learn what the customer came for and if they were successful in accomplishing that task.

Because their purpose is going to be different from yours. And they aren’t cursed with your knowledge. So embrace this curse and stop trying to think like your audience. Because you are not your audience.

Author’s Bio: James Ellis is a digital strategist, mad scientist, lover, fighter, drummer and blogger living in Chicago. You can reach out to him or just argue with his premise at


  1. says

    A few weeks ago I was at an event where surveys were discussed. It’s such a great idea and can give you the information you really need to help those who come to your site.

  2. says

    You are very correct. I recently bought a product that I haven’t been able to use. It’s totally NOT-user friendly. However, the product creator doesn’t realize this. They definitely know where every button is and how everything works. But I don’t.

    Thanks for calling our attention to look at things from the other perspective.

  3. says

    James, Excellent advice! I’ve always gotten superb advice from customers — and it’s usually unexpected advice, things I never would have thought of because I’m too close to see the forest for the trees.

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