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Are user personas throwing us off?

What if relying on those broad strokes of audience demographics is actually leading us astray? Here are the 5 questions to ask when researching to clear things up.


I love audience profiling as much as the next gal and think it's one of the most valuable tools we have for understanding the people we serve– but what if relying on those broad strokes of audience demographics is actually leading us astray?


Recently, Pew Research took a bold stance on addressing the challenges of presenting generational insights to define audience labels. They acknowledged the criticism they've received on how reductive "generational data" can be and have committed to adding more rigor to their reporting, including controlling for other factors beyond age when making generational comparisons.

In the article, Pew references the need to isolate events that have occurred during one's formative years versus circumstances that have affected all age groups. An example of these events might be Watergate or September 11, referred to as “period effects." Pew isolates them from normal age-appropriate human behaviors, i.e. young people being knuckleheads or older folks being resistant to change.

What's particularly special about them sharing this insight is not just the rarity of an industry giant acknowledging their shortcomings and actively implementing guardrails to do better, it's also an important reminder for all of us to make sure we're adding color and context to our data points. Without them, we're prone to make flat assumptions that mislead decision-making, or worst, become a tool to perpetuate discriminatory biases.


By itself, a group characteristic is not representative of any whole human, nor a partial one.

Business News Daily defines demographics as "the study of the characteristics of people or organizations within a defined geographical location."

By itself, a group characteristic is not representative of any whole human, nor a partial one. Within each demographic group lie subgroups and sub-subgroups who are all affected by the realities of existing differently due to countless outside influences. These influences include culture, neighborhood, household ideologies, personal psychology, whether they had lunch that day, and the list goes on. When it comes to user personas try not get stuck on what race, age, or education level could say about your audience. Your audience has so much more to them than what fits in a census box. But if data is important, but can be misleading– how are we supposed to actually use our findings?


Here are the 5 questions to ask when researching user personas to clear things up.


It's too easy to paint over the nuances that actually defines your audience when you're looking at an aggregate. We need to revisit how we interpret group data when looking to understand our audience through demographics.


Even when analyzing your own data, it's important to dive into the exploratory process of investigating what may be the source of any changes in your analytics.


There are a few ways you can add color to your figures by looking at the context before determining definitive findings on your research. Begin by asking yourself these five questions to inform your analysis:

1. When did the change occur? Consider the time and date to identify the cause and potential effect beyond the single data point.

2. Is this change consistent across all of my platforms? It's possible that the platform's reporting is incorrect. Check various sources for similar data to validate your finding.

3. Were there changes to your audience during this period? Any large influx or changes in audience size, geography, or demographics should be noted and cataloged with suspicion. It's likely this change was a result of an impacting event or miscalculation.

4. If there was a large change in audience, what may have caused it? Perhaps the root causes are algorithm changes or a mention on a prominent site.

5. Could the change be due to a trending topic? Our organizations exist within a larger ecosystem and can be influenced by cultural conversations. The impacting topic can be directly correlated or a byproduct of a supplementary one. Check keywords on the internet to figure out how you would like to intentionally contribute to the conversation.


Above all else– before trying to just replicate the magic or dodge the negative event altogether, dig to find the larger learning in the information.


Of course, we begin with statistics and analytics because it's relatively easy to source in the digital age. However, the insight goldmine doesn't exist there. It needs the context of going deeper to assess both the larger landscape and its individuals to derive meaningful discernment. Instead, identify the rallying event and listen to your audience to find the thread that connects these people to your sphere.

Here's why all of this matters: when looking at your audience through the broad lens of demographics, it's too easy to paint over the nuances that actually define your audience. Do not get stuck on what a race, age, or education group "says" about your audience. They have so much more meaning than that.

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