Indirectly listening to your audiences

When new projects are started, as digital people we often speak to stakeholders in the organisation we’re dealing with to understand their needs, and hopefully we also speak to some of their audiences too. This could be through direct interaction – performing some lab-based testing, guerrilla testing, using surveys, interviews, or workshops. It could also be through indirect methods – digging through analytics to find pain points and drop-outs, or search queries people are using that may not return what’s needed. If the organisation is a public authority, there can be another great source of insight – Freedom of Information requests.

The UK Freedom of Information Act 2000 (and Scotland, 2002) creates a public “right of access” to information held by public authorities. I’m always thrilled when a company brings up FOI requests as part of any Discovery process. Usually it’s in the context of “we’d like our new website to cut down the amount of contact and FOI requests we receive because it takes up so much of our time and resources”. This in itself can be a great goal or measure of success, but often the mention of FOIs treats them as an indicator of output rather than a source of research in their own right. The reason for the FOIs being submitted can be a goldmine for learning about people’s frustrations and interests. What more, as an organisation, can you do to be communicating with these customers who have gone out of their way to seek out certain information?

With the Discovery project I’m working on at the moment, I was able to be provided with a summary of FOI requests dating back to 2014. 48% of them were directly related to concepts that I’m researching and planning – 48% of this channel of queries and effort could hopefully be reduced if we go ahead with this project, hooray!

But what about the learning? FOI requests often focus on scandal but using these as part of my public sector work has given some really useful insight that I can feed into my plans for things like system design, searching, taxonomies, and journeys. Is this information captured at the moment? Is it accessible in a sensible way from the systems that serve the business and can it be served up to digital channels? Requests have included things like (details altered from actual requests):

“How many companies in Suffolk are involved in a certain sector.”

“How much money has been provided to companies involved in food and drink services.”

“Projects that cite or make reference to Pembury Hospital in the last 5 years.”

“Requests for raw data around certain projects.”

These kind of queries have echoed what I’ve heard in my other research and from speaking to people about what could be useful, but additionally provide specific examples of situations that people have found themselves in rather than predictive sentiments like “I might be interested in looking for all companies by geography” – we now know for a fact that county-level results have been something that people have gone out of their way to acquire. We also know that we’ll need to find a way to merge financial data with organisational data in order to support the queries, that a keyword search needs to go beyond titles, and that raw data that people can manipulate and re-use themselves is desirable.

Using this historical information can also help to reduce potential bias around who we think our audiences are (and who we recruit for any testing), and to provide evidence around those that were actually interested.

Of course, as with any data source not all of it may be relevant to us. A considerable amount of the requests that I reviewed were actually filed by prospective suppliers fishing for business, looking into the contracts that the business holds (e.g. “A list of specific IT maintenance contracts for servers, and a list of training purchased by the IT department.”). This wouldn’t have been within scope for me to address, but could be useful in the hands of the right person.

Next time you hear someone mention FOIs (possibly whilst rolling their eyes), don’t just think about using these as measurement criteria. Think instead of indirectly listening to your audiences, and the opportunity and insight that could be hiding in there to let you serve your customers better.

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Posted by Sally Lait

Sally is the lead consultant and founder of Records Sound the Same, helping people with digital transformation. She's also a speaker, coder, gamer, author, and jasmine tea fiend.