You’re Probably Not the Audience

I’ve been reflecting on the number of comments and decisions I’ve witnessed lately where people have decided that a particular online approach, website design, engagement channel, interface design, fact sheet or other design or content is no good as it didn’t appeal personally to them.

There’s definitely a tendency in our society for individuals to think they are the central audience for everything they are exposed to – advertisements, entertainment, news and online content.

This individual viewpoint has been fostered over decades for both commercial and political ends.

The advertising industry has applied psychological triggers to make individuals feel that they are unique and worthy of consideration, while selling them mass produced goods on an epic scale. Hundreds of ads are targeted at each of us every day, attempting to influence our buying decisions by making us feel special or by convincing us that by buying their products we will become special.

Political leaders adjust their messages for their audiences, to help create an emotional bond. In effect they tell everyone separately that the view of the specific audience/industry/organisation/club they are talking to are special and therefore deserve to be heard and respected.

Schools do it when they refuse to give failing grades, simply ‘needs improvement’ and parents do it when they don’t hold children accountable for their actions.

Even employers do it – using the notion of ‘special’ as a key tool for recruiting and retaining key worlers. Of course your staff are special – intelligent, hard-working, committed – otherwise you’d have hired someone else.

All of this helps build a belief in the infallibility and centrality of the individual. This isn’t by itself negative, having strong self-belief is a key attribute for success in almost every field.

However it can also lead to ego pitfalls, the belief that an individual’s opinion must be worth more than that of another person, or a view that the world needs to organise itself neatly around what we want or believe.

One of the areas I see this coming out frequently is in how governments design services, policies, content and engagements. All of these have traditionally been organised around what public servants or politicians believe are the right way to do them.

And by the ‘right way’ I mean the way that the politician or public servant would personally prefer to use or engage with government.

Again this isn’t a universally bad thing – a particular politician or public servant may accurately represent the audience of the service, policy or content, or engage via the same channels and approaches as the citizens they seek to involve.

However, more often than not, they aren’t the audience.

The late-40s male white public servant really doesn’t comprehend the life experience of an early 20s female African migrant.

The career politician who has unfailingly worked for their party for forty years to achieve a seat as a older lady, doesn’t have the life experience of spending 20 years running start-up businesses in the technology sector.

This isn’t to say they aren’t good people, committed to good outcomes, or unable to represent communities or administer programs on the public’s behalf.

However it does beg the question of why we hold up senior bureaucrats and politicians as the final decision makers on programs, policies, content and engagement processes which are aimed at supporting more diverse communities.

What if the next time a website needed to be approved for launch, instead of a Secretary or Minister, the agency went to the community and asked, ‘does this meet your needs’ as the final approval step?

What if a policy team had to report to a citizen starring committee to approve a particular policy direction, or an agency delivering public services had to approve every process change with citizen stakeholders?

And I don’t simply mean engaging with stakeholder groups – bodies purporting to represent different groups of citizens – I mean going directly to citizens and bypassing bodies with their own agendas.

The ABC does this in quite a sound way, inviting citizens to nominate for its board and having live audiences for a number of shows (there’s no better way to ensure performance and detect bad concepts fast).

Our justice system does it too – we empanel juries of people, pay them a small sum for giving up their time, and have them involved as the decision-makers in trials, under the impartial eyes of a court-appointed judge.

Many councils around the world – and even some provincial/state and national governments appoint citizen oversight panels for various decisions.

This approach could be extended into the Australian Government as well. Rather than simply having members of parliament elected based on who decides to stand – a self-selecting bunch who often see politics as their career – we could seek to appoint panels of citizens to oversee a range of decisions and processes.

True it could cost a bit to set up and operate such a scheme, however the savings from adjusting decisions formerly approved by individuals who weren’t the audience, to be approved by those who are, could lead to massive savings over time.

Fewer policies would have to be discarded, fewer services reconfigured and fewer actions apologised for and compensated in court.

So when you are next faced with deciding on a direction or approving the final version of a policy, service, program, website, mobile app, or other government decision – take a moment to reflect on whether you’re the audience and whether you’re the right person to be making that final decision.

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