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17 Nov 2022

Creating a Website with Complex Audience Needs (or How Not to Sell Mops)

By Scott Smith

Sometimes it’s hard not to envy people trying to sell mops.

Your target audience has no other goal than to have a clean floor. That’s pretty much their need. You can start there.

Many of our clients are nonprofits or institutions that aren’t selling anything in the traditional sense. Their target audience is complex and varied, and the only way to figure it out is to wade into the chaos and try to make some actionable sense out of it.

Good thing we love doing just that, because when Berkeley Lab selected us to help them redo their website, we were faced with quite a challenge.

Berkeley Lab is a storied institution. For almost 100 years it’s been one of the world’s top research organizations. As one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories, they do a variety of basic and applied research in physics, chemistry, biology, computing, and much more. The Lab’s work has resulted in 16 Nobel Prizes and 16 new elements on the periodic table. Its annual budget is more than $1 billion, with more than 3,600 employees, and upwards of 14,000 researchers from around the world use its facilities. Most — but not all — of its funding comes from the federal government, but Berkeley Lab’s people think of themselves as independent academics. The place is complex, and the website they had wasn’t telling the story well.

The amazing folks in the Strategic Communications office wanted to build a website that was audience-first. Audiences don’t necessarily care what internal teams care about. They have needs of their own, and if you want to tell your story, you’d better do it in a way that serves those needs quickly and enjoyably.

To do that, you first must understand your target audience and their needs. So who is the target audience for Berkeley Lab? As you can imagine, it’s complicated. Here’s a quick list:

An example list of target audiences for Berkeley Lab's website revamp. See writt

Science-minded members of the public
: They are all of us (if you’re into science). We’re voters and want to know that our tax dollars are being used well and how cool and relevant the science is to improving our lives. We want to feel hope.

Members of Congress and their staff: Congressional aides are looking for information about what’s going on in their districts and stuff that the members are interested in. Senator X is into hydrogen? Cool — we better have easily digestible information some aide can put into a document. They want their voters to be impressed.

Department of Energy officials: Officials across this large, complex federal agency want to know what’s going on with their programs.

Postdocs. These folks become the next star scientists, and Berkeley Lab competes for the most talented from around the world.

Potential staff: They want to work at a place that’s doing great work, that’s inclusive, and that cares about them.

Existing staff: A crucial audience and the biggest evangelists on the ground, organizational staff want to feel like they’re working for the greatest lab in the world for myriad reasons.

Private industry: They want to grow their businesses and innovate, they want to understand how Berkeley Lab can help.

Members of the Bay Area community: They want to know: What are they building up there? Berkeley Lab, for many, is the mysterious place that sits on a hill above the UC Berkeley campus.

Broader scientific community: It’s complicated. They want the science, but science is so specialized now that someone who knows physics might want concepts in biology explained more simply. So go deep but also keep it accessible enough. Whew.

Philanthropy: They want to see how the Lab can make progress on issues they care about.

Other: I mean, it goes on. And each of the above audience groups is made of finer groups.

Our own need? To come up with some organizing principles — a strategy — that allowed us to make one website that works for all audiences while not making a big flat, boring experience.

Here’s what we did.

Step 1: Gather the data

The first thing was to gather as much information as possible. In this business, you can’t be afraid of chaos. You have to dive right into the mix. Over the course of 8 workshops, 6 focus groups, and several interviews and surveys, we talked with more than 300 people within the Lab’s internal and external community; gathered the Lab’s requirements and goals; and delved deep into audience needs, always trying to have empathy for them. We scoured analytics data. We read dozens of reports and publications. At the end of the discovery process we had hundreds of pages of transcripts and notes.

Step 2: Make piles

The piles are the point. We set out to categorize all of the data we had and separate signal from noise. One signal was the Lab’s needs, including communication goals, content needs, features, and functionality. The harder one was teasing out audience needs.

We printed out all of the notes on actual paper and highlighted anything where a person expressed a want or a need. Then we used good-ole scissors to cut up the quotes and notes, and we started organizing them into smaller piles that seemed related. Cutting them out allowed us to move things around if we didn’t get it right the first time. Our thesis was that there was more in common across audience groups than you might initially think. The trick is to avoid preconceived notions of what those smaller piles are — instead, you let them reveal themselves through diving into the chaos.

We saw, of course, that one common audience need was to have more clarity about what the Lab did. There is so much going on that people can’t see the forest for the trees. That was true even for internal teams. More than a few of our slips of paper included the sentiment that they had worked for the Lab for years before they really understood the larger story. Of course, external folks, including members of the Berkeley, CA community, wanted to get a good overview so they understood their neighbor.

Another common need across groups was to get a quick fix on a very specific area of research. People interested in nanotechnology wanted to know about what’s going on in nanotechnology. People working on renewable energy wanted to know about what was going on in renewable energy and to quickly get to the science. Some needed overviews, some needed to get to lists of scientists, and others needed to get to the publications that are the Lab’s bread and butter.

Step 3: Establish need states

We could now see what everyone wanted, and there was some order, but we still lacked an overarching concept for the site. We got that by establishing need states. It had to be simple. By looking at everything at once, we could see that there were a couple of important axes.

People — sometimes the same people on different visits! — were either looking for very specific information or they were looking to explore. That was one axis. Another was that they either needed to just gather information or they needed to engage with the Lab in some way. That was another axis.

An illustration of an axis that we used to plot the audience entry points. The axis forms a cross, at the top it reads

That gave us something really important. We could deliver on all immediate needs in all quadrants, and we could easily put together an information architecture, but what could we do with this information?

Step 4: Consider how you can leverage those insights

The Lab wanted more engagement with people. We realized that we want to move people from just visiting and getting the info they needed to something more active. Could we move people from seekers of information to fans? Could we grab them when they come and encourage them to stay? That was the breakthrough — we knew that we needed to encourage exploration at every turn, and have calls to action that served up related information. There could be no dead ends. We could grab people, inspire them, and help them become participants in the work the Lab is doing.

An illustrated list of pages on Berkelely Lab's new website that fall in the category of Lab Loyalists versus Stakeholders and Ambassadors.

Then we could line up the audiences’ need states with the Lab’s organizational goals. The point of a website should not be to cynically push people into a direction. The point is to pull people from one need state to another.

Learn more about the project by reading the full Berkeley Lab case study or view our latest work on our case studies page.

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