Visualise An Audience

Need help empathising with users? Just imagine they are all in the room!

I love the buzz of a big crowd.

It’s exciting to soak up the atmosphere created when lots of people are all in the same physical space at the same time.

For those lucky enough to be the band, or sports team or keynote speaker who are the focus of a crowds attention, that is quite powerful.

(Or terrifying, I suppose, depending on their mood!)

When lots of people are in the same place at the same time it’s easy to visualise crowd sizes. But when we’re working on a product, especially a software product, it’s much harder to get feedback like this. Our customers are everywhere and nowhere, so we have to work harder to have them in mind.

One technique that’s useful is to go back, in our minds, to real crowds.

For example, imagine we’re working on a tool that has 2,000 people using it. This is approximately equivalent to the number of people who fit into the Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre at the Aotea Center in Auckland, when it’s full. Imagine that many people all in one space together, and the noise and activity they generate. Having this specific crowd in mind can change the way that we think about the generic people who are using the features we build.

A common mistake in product teams is to dismiss a subset of the potential customer base, because they only represent a small percentage of the overall audience. But, again, it can help to imagine these people as a distinct group.

For example, when considering accessibility, we can imagine all of the impacted customers together in one space - those who struggle to read small fonts, or who are colour blind (or completely blind), or those still using an older device. How would we explain our design decisions to them, in person? Perhaps on a percentage basis they don’t seem significant, and so are too easily overlooked, but it’s more difficult to imagine standing in front of them and telling them to their face that they don’t matter.

Or, when planning upgrades, if we don’t think it’s a big deal for things to stop working or for the website to be offline while we make changes, think of all of the people who will be trying to access the service during that time, and imagine what it would feel like to have them all in the room while we flick the switch. No matter how small that number, it would probably feel like a lot of people. And we might be motivated to get the service back up more quickly if they were all standing behind us impatiently looking over our shoulder.

We can use this technique to put any audience size in perspective.

It’s amazing the difference it makes when we start thinking of our users as real people.

For example…

Note: When the numbers get bigger than that, we need different techniques!

  1. Or, alternatively, the number of civilians packed onto US Airforce C-17, when evacuated from Kabul in 2021 ↩︎

  2. In 2006 I was photographed at what was then called Westpac Stadium in Wellington for an article about Trade Me in Idealog:

    Rowan Simpson at Westpac Stadium in Wellington The idea behind that photo was the same: there are 35,000 yellow seats at that stadium and at the time there were about that many people online at once every evening on Trade Me.

    It was a typically wet and wild day, hence the slightly damp windswept look and the Icebreaker jacket. ↩︎

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