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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Substrakt

Regardless of debates about what audience development means, the main aim should be for more people to experience the arts, says Ash Mann

black and white image of a crowd

Davide Ragusa

Twenty years ago, ‘audience development’ was a new(ish) term and there was lots of debate about it. More recently there has been some discussion about what it should and shouldn’t be. 

Now it’s generally accepted as a critical part of running an arts organisation, and the majority of cultural organisations will have an audience development plan. 

But in the end, audience development is about working to understand audiences, their needs and wants, with a desired outcome - on all sides - that more people, from all backgrounds, experience arts and culture more regularly.

User-centred thinking 

Unfortunately, in our experience, organisations can be extremely sophisticated in their approach to audience development generally, but it doesn’t always translate to their use of digital platforms or products being user-centred.

‘User-centred thinking’ is a concept you will regularly come across if you spend any time working on digital projects. What it means in practical terms is ensuring that you understand what users want and need, focusing your efforts on meeting those needs, and measuring whether or not that has actually happened.

Every successful digital project or initiative will, at its heart, be user-centred. Work that doesn’t have a clear understanding of who it’s for and what those people want will quickly fail. 

It is always useful to remember that you are not your user, your understanding of your organisation and your digital experiences will be nothing like your actual users’.

Obvious always wins

Luke Wroblewski (UX consultant and Product Director at Google) says that when it comes to digital experiences “obvious always wins”. But you can only deliver what’s obvious if you have a clear, nuanced, and practical understanding of who your users are and what they want and need. 

Fortunately, moving to a more user-centred approach doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated. Here are three simple (and cheap) things you can do:

  • Speak to your users about their experience(s) with you. This doesn't have to be complicated – there are some very simple usability testing resources available (the bible on this is Don’t Make Me Think and there are additional resources on the author’s site).

    Other ways to gather user feedback include tools like Hotjar which can help you understand user behaviour and also run simple surveys (Hotjar has a free plan option for charities); or perhaps most simple of all - ask your users directly (in person, via email, or via social) about their experiences.

  • Understand your users’ motivations, needs and challenges. This doesn’t require expensive research projects. Providing a small incentive, you can recruit participants to join a focus group to find out what motivates them to visit your website, and the challenges they have when looking for things to do and so on.

    There will also be useful contextual information from feedback given to front-of-house or other customer-facing staff, reviews on sites like TripAdvisor or Google Reviews, and from user behaviour on your website (which you can get by reviewing your Google Analytics data).

  • Undertake some simple journey mapping. User journey mapping with colleagues from across your organisation allows you to build a picture of the entire user experience across all touchpoints and channels (online, and offline). Spend some time working through the journey different types of users take and all the associated touchpoints. What are they likely thinking and feeling at each stage? What needs improving? Where might you have inadvertently put a block in their path?

Once you’ve undertaken some or all of this type of activity it will quickly become clear where your users are experiencing frustration and challenges (and, equally, what is working well). This will help you develop a far clearer understanding of where your time and energy should be focused in a way that will deliver real, tangible benefits to your users.

Embed user-centred thinking

But much like thinking about accessibility, this is not a tick box exercise. User needs, expectations and motivations are always evolving, as are your digital channels. Embedding a more user-centred way of thinking across your organisation will ensure that the benefits gained from working in this way are sustained over the long term.

All too often we see digital projects in the cultural sector being driven solely by institutional perspectives, or internal agendas and priorities overriding demonstrable (and provable) user needs.

This can manifest as language, content, or functionality decisions being made based on internal likes and dislikes, or institutional history - neither of which are going to result in an effective experience for your users.

Put plainly, if you aren’t being user-centred then your digital work is likely to be a total waste of time, and money.

Further reading:

Ash Mann is Managing Director at Substrakt and Strategy Director at Creating Impakt. 


This article is part of a series contributed by Substrakt exploring the many ways in which arts and cultural organisations can embrace the world of digital.

Link to Author(s): 
Head and shoulders image of Ash Mann