Wednesday, June 3, 2015

audience, audience, audience

I sometimes feel a little like a broken record when I talk about communicating with data. My latest oft-repeated word is audience. We must keep our audience in mind throughout the design process and in general, try to make things easy on them. I spent a little time on this topic in a webinar for TechChange yesterday and thought I'd turn some of my notes into a quick blog post, which is what you'll find below.

When it comes to audience, I often have workshop participants do an exercise where I encourage them to identify a specific person they are communicating to. While it isn't always the reality, designing with a specific person in mind can help us from falling into the "mixed audience" trap. If you are communicating to a "mixed audience," it's easy to treat them as a glob and not recognize that the mixed group is made up of individuals. In fact, it's surprisingly easy to make a data visualization (or the broader communication in which a data visualization sits) without ever pausing to think about the person on the other end of it. When it comes to communicating with data, my view is that we should not design for ourselves or our work or project. Rather, we should design for our audience. Always.

One benefit of identifying a specific audience is that doing so allows you to reflect on who they are and what drives them. What do they care about? What motivates them? What keeps them up at night? This is helpful for structuring your overall message in a way they will be receptive to. If you can identify what motivates your audience, you can think about how to frame what you need them to know or do in terms of those motivating factors, improving your odds for successful communication.

Beyond that, there are important things to know about how your audience sees that you can use to your advantage when creating visuals. These are the lessons I've more traditionally focused on in my workshops and here on this blog. Identify and eliminate clutter or things that aren't adding informative value. Leverage preattentive attributes like color, size, and placement on page to signal to your audience where to look and create a visual hierarchy of information. (I already sound like a broken record on many of these topics, so won't repeat more of that here today!)

In the Q&A portion of any workshop or presentation, my broken record player of audience, audience, audience tends to run on repeat Considering our audience can help us answer many of the design questions we face: What colors will work well? When does enough information become too much information? Will an image or video be appropriate? When do I need to add more context or explain in greater detail? When you find yourself facing questions like these, pause to consider your audience. Who are they and what will work best for them?

Meta-lesson: keep your audience in mind throughout the design process; designing with them in mind will set you up for success when communicating with data!


  1. Hi Cole. I hope you're well.

    This post definitely resonated with me, as it reminded me of three very similar "instructions" that I've come across over the years, two from disciplines other than data visualization.

    1. At a Tableau conference a few years back, one of the presenters stated that a good dashboard should only answer one question. By designing your dashboard around a single question, you force yourself to identify the key thing you want your audience to understand and then ensure that everything on that dashboard is in support of that understanding.

    2. Kurt Vonnegut once stated that he always wrote his books for an audience of one (his sister, I believe). By not trying to write for everyone, he was better able to convey his ideas since he was focused on making sure his sister would enjoy what she read.

    3. In photography, it's critical to determine what you want your photograph to be about before you go about any of the technical aspects like framing, shutter speed, lens, etc. David DuChemin spends quite a bit of time talking about this in his book "Photographically Speaking" (

    Seeing as "story" is the driving force behind each act of expression, it isn't surprising that similar techniques and perspectives would be employed across them to deliver that story.

    Take care.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Mike! Super interesting to see - as you point out - how having that one "thing" clearly in mind (the one story, the one reader, the one item you'll capture on film) helps the whole process become clearer.

  3. @Mike. Great additional points. Unfortunately, most dashboards are often overcrowded with information such that one ends up admiring the design rather than learning anything - that's why I like your 'one dashboard one message' point.

  4. We've been talking a lot about user centered / human centered design at my firm, and I've found that the exercise of creating user personas that those methods use is also useful in thinking through audiences for data visualizations.

    We have a great one pager from ThinkPlace Foundation that we've used with groups to map out who the audience is for a map, for example, and having a framework for thinking through the different relevant characteristics of the audience can be really helpful for someone not routinely accustomed to taking the time to think about the audience and their needs.