User Centred vs. Audience Based

In a recent presentation on Information Architecture at Health Canada, I was asked the question “should we be targeting our users or our audience”? This question was followed by a bit of a debate and confusion over the matter, roping in other concepts like user centred design and audience based navigation to further complicate things.

Following the meeting I circulated a short document to bring clarity to the issue and thought it would be worthwhile to share some of the concepts as I’m sure Health Canada isn’t the only organization users and audience have some delta between them.

Here is how I like to define the difference between the two:

The difference between users and audience isn’t rocket science, but it is an important distinction to make when making design decisions. Following that thread, I want to clarify two design approaches that are related to (and confused with) user and audience: User Centred Design and Audience Based Navigation.

User Centered: A website that is designed to address the needs and behaviours of the different users of your site. This includes both the users who are coming to your website today and the audience that you would like to have visiting your website (See image above). Effective user centered web design balances the needs of different users by following all of the following guiding principles:

All users want content that is:

  • Well written and easy to understand
  • Easy to find
  • Clear and to the point
  • Helps them achieve their purpose for visiting your site

Different user types may want:

  • Different amounts of detail and technical information
  • Access to explanatory context vs. Access to raw data

No user wants content that is:

  • Generic to the point of having no value
  • Detailed information/data without any context for application

Audience Based Navigation: A navigation structure for a website that divides content by audience type (i.e. Seniors, Immigrants, Scientists, health care professionals, etc.). Ironically, Audience based navigation often stands in opposition to user centered design. We have known for a while now that for the most part, audience based navigation is not the most effective means of structuring a website to help users achieve their desired tasks online. Users decide what content they want and do not want to be told who they are.

Kellen is a dynamic consultant, who excels at analysing how people, information and technology work together. As Director of Government Service Excellence, Kellen is focused on helping the Government of Canada solve the complex problems related to serving Canadians. This is done with a focus on effective and strategic use of the web, integrating with other channels such as telephone, in-person, social media and mobile platforms. His strength is bringing clarity to complex situations, and Kellen achieves this through his skills in facilitation, change management, process design and creative problem solving.


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