A newsletter on progress-space research and audience development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

(Reading time: 3m, 12s)

I’ve been saying for a while now that the purpose of design research is to improve the organization. Not just a particular service or program — The whole organization.

How can that be? How can design research, which prioritizes audience goals, change the way an organization functions?

Take a look at this article by Aubrey Bergauer called Audience Development: The Long Haul Model.

Over the past few years, Aubrey has restructured the California Symphony. Many of the decisions have been based on design research — for example, studying what prevents people from visiting or why some people don’t renew their memberships. The article describes how the symphony has seen remarkable growth as a result of that work.

Look at Bergauer’s comparison of how typical performing arts organizations treat audience development versus the California Symphony’s model:

California Symphony’s audience journey model. Source:  Aubrey Bergauer

I bet the kidney beans on the left look familiar to a lot of you.

The division between marketing and development is one that I’ve never really understood. I can see how that model may have been useful in the past for organizations to plan and make decisions, but it creates a fragmented user experience.

Website architecture is often a good example. Go look at an organization’s website navigation and you can often make out the org chart. The audience doesn’t care about the org chart or think in terms of those divisions, yet those divisions color so many audience interactions.

Back to the chart.

See how the traditional model is focused on departments and activities? Bergauer replaces that with an emphasis on the audience’s journey. The traditional model starts from a place where the employee says, “Here is what department I’m in, here are the activities I pursue, feed me people to support those activities.” An audience-focused model starts with the question, “What has this person’s experience been with us and where are they in their relationship to us today?” The answer to that question determines what activities employees will pursue:

California Symphony’s model of how marketing/development spends time. Source:  Aubrey Bergauer

In other words, the organization stops treating everyone the same.

I’ve written before about how the problem of treating everyone the same expresses itself in design. Why, for example, do organizations so often insist that everyone shares their home phone number when they complete any transaction online? Want to buy a $12 ticket for a one-off event as a first-time visitor? You have to give us your phone number.

This model explains why. Department X counts dialing phone numbers — any phone number — as a meaningful use of their time.

Last week, we talked about how to define engagement. I said that a combination of different behaviors, rather than just one, is a more meaningful way to measure engagement — and/or looking at activity over time.

Check out how Bergauer shifted metrics at the California Symphony:

California Symphony’s improved metrics. Source:  Aubrey Bergauer

The model has moved from being centered around activities and the potentially one-off behaviors that led to them — signed up for the mailing list, bought a ticket and shared a phone number — to audience behavior and the individual’s relationship with the organization over time.

This kind of change really has to come from the top. Otherwise, as Bergauer describes, you can imagine an employee or department feeling like they’re neglecting their responsibilities by no applying the same approach to everyone:

It was incredibly difficult to have the discipline to say, ‘No, now is not the right time to be making a donation ask of this group. Instead, we will wait until people from this group are renewing subscribers when we know they are times over more likely to respond, give more, and ultimately renew that gift. We’re vying for a higher lifetime value of these patrons.’

An inverted world

A reader wrote in last month saying that their museum isn’t all that interested in visitor studies right now, but they do struggle with different departments using different metrics and not working in unison.

I was surprised that they seemed to have categorized design research as “visitor studies,” but it took a while for my brain to formulate exactly why.

We were viewing the world through different frames.

The reader was coming from a world where there are organizational departments and one of those departments studies the visitor.

In my view, there are different kinds of people and an organization to serve them.

Bergauer’s article describes how design research — which is perhaps visitor studies on steroids — flips the script and unifies the organization around more meaningful, audience-centered metrics.

Sometimes the problems we face are baked into the way we frame our questions.

What are your thoughts? As always, you’re welcome to reply to this email and let me know.

Thanks for reading,



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