Audience focus in support of creative innovation

Photo by John Haynes (c) RSC
Photo by John Haynes (c) RSC

Professor Jonathan Freeman, Academic Lead Knowledge Exchange and Professor of Psychology, Goldsmiths University of London & Managing Director, i2 media research limited, Leah Kurta, Innovation Lead, i2 media research limited, and Lewis Turner-Brown and Hannah Edwards, i2 media research limited


The i2 media research team, based at Goldsmiths University of London, has been busy digging into the over 6,500 audience responses we collected via our 15-minute post-show survey of audience experience of Dream ( Detailed results will be released over the coming months.  But as you will have seen from the ‘live audience counter’ we displayed, if you got a ticket, it engaged very large audiences! Dream was produced as part of the Audience of the Future Live Performance Demonstrator project (funded by UKRI), led by Sarah Ellis (Digital Director at Royal Shakespeare Company. The research and development, creative and tech teams from Dream will be sharing multiple lessons learned in the months ahead.

In this essay, we will share some detail of the methodologies researched and developed by i2 media research, both prior to and within the project. The descriptions you read below of the methodologies are deliberately dissociated from any further discussion of Dream, as the project has a coordinated dissemination and sharing plan which will release further information to as wide an audience as possible in due course.


i2 media research has conducted over 320 commissioned and collaborative projects since its foundation in 2002, working with over 150 different client organisations and partners.  These span some of the largest companies in the world (e.g., Facebook, Toyota, Barclays and many more), to leading creative and cultural organisations (e.g., Royal Shakespeare Company, Punchdrunk, Manchester International Festival, Marshmallow Laser Feast, Arts Council England), to the European Commission, to multiple UK Government departments and regulators, third sector organisations (e.g., RNIB), and early stage, innovative start-ups.

In each project we conduct at i2, we combine observational, qualitative and quantitative research methods rooted in psychology, to:

    • Identify different types of users and their needs;
    • Evaluate user motivation and ability to engage with the project’s focus use case;
    • Synthesise our findings to provide actionable recommendations to optimise user engagement with the use case.

Covid-19 has resulted in a clear need for our expertise to guide digital responses to the pandemic in several projects we are engaged in. So what do we do, and how?

Underpinnings of our tools

For the past 25 years, we have developed a body of knowledge adapting multiple theoretical and practical models, theories, and tools on which we base our practice.  These include foci on:

    1. People’s motivations to engage with different media content and platforms, fundamentally based on Katz, Blumler and Gurevitch (1974) Uses and Gratifications theory. Our models, described later in this short article, assume users have agency in their consumption choices, implying that designing to connect with audiences requires an understanding of the motivations and barriers different users may have to use/engage with a media product/service.
    2. The Quality of Experience users experience when engaging with a digital product, service, or platform. Our approach recognises that the quality of technical and/or functional characteristics of a media service (e.g., screen resolution, bandwidth, colour quality, interaction design, latency, etc.) directly impacts users’ Quality of Experience, as per ITU’s definition , in ways which depend on users’ skills, capabilities, device capabilities, and their motivation to engage with the experience.
    3. The purpose of the designed experience. Because we apply our tools across any digital product, service or platform, a key component of our theoretical models is the purpose of the experience whose UX we are researching. Whether it be experiential, narrative driven, functional, or transactional, our approach is to explicitly characterise the purpose of the designed experience to then consider, and evaluate, the extent to which it meets different users’ needs and expectation.
    4. Context. Multiple of our own and other researchers’ studies have demonstrated that the context of use or engagement impacts users’ subjective/affective experience and can directly impact usability. Simple examples are plentiful, think for example of how the legibility of a digital screen and its perceived brightness vary in different ambient lighting conditions (beach vs bedroom).

Our tools

Here we describe three of our key methods and frameworks, derived from our internal R&D, to apply in our projects; to optimise Outputs our clients and partners are developing. We use ‘Output’ generically here, but – dependent on the project – it can be a production, film, game, app, payment mechanism and more.  Just about anything that users can engage with, as audiences, consumers or as business-to-business users.

i2’s UX Model

As a first step in any project, we evaluate potential variables to explore using the i2 media research UX model.  The model was first presented in Freeman’s PhD, 1999, and subsequently published in our 2001 paper introducing the ITC-Sense of Presence Inventory (a world-leading measure of presence in mediated experiences), with an expanded view presented in our 2018 research for Digital Catapult. Whilst simple, the model highlights the complexity of understanding user (audience) experience, as a product of an Output’s form, its content, the person engaging (e.g., audience) and the situational context of the engagement.  Our model is illustrated in the diagram below.  Essentially, it defines User Experience as the product of all these variables.

We apply the model to generate a series of key questions for our R&D to address.

    1. Person: What do users/audiences want, need, and expect? What are they capable of doing? And why? How are they feeling? What are they missing?
    2. Form: What devices do users/audiences have access to in the context of use, through which they could access an Output? From this, what affordances would the Output need to encompass to satisfy user/audience needs?
    3. Content: What does the content need to comprise to meet user/audience needs and address the Person (from Q1), on the Form (devices people can access, Q2)? and
    4. Context: In the current context (pandemic, isolation, being at home), what features of an Output would be best meet users’/audiences’ needs, abilities, and expectations?

i2’s Audience Characterisation and Segmentation approach

Having defined the questions our research and development needs to address, the key priority is to define the target audience for the Output we are focusing on.  We do this through our Audience Segmentation methodology, a psychographic segmentation approach. This is usually a multi-stage process, but some stages can be skipped if we have access to good quality data to support doing so.  The typical stages include:

    1. Literature review (academic and grey literature)
    2. Stakeholder research, with experts from within our client organisation(s) and their networks
    3. Qualitative research involving users’ representative of target audiences
    4. Development of a questionnaire to capture attitudinal, behavioural and situational characteristics which we identify as likely to meaningfully vary across different types of user/audience
    5. Large scale, representative survey of population of interest, using the questionnaire
    6. Statistical analyses (factor and cluster analyses) of relevant attitudinal and behavioural variables to identify subgroups of audiences who are similar on important variables to others in their type/cluster, but different to members of other types/ clusters

We have used this method to identify typologies of audiences and users for TV, live performance, games platforms, social media apps and multiple other Outputs. We usually complete our segmentation process with the delivery of data-based Personas (though for multiple clients we have developed secondary data-based personas using just steps 1 and 2 above). The biggest benefits of developing an attitudinal segmentation are that it enables:

    • Optimisation of Outputs to address specific segments’ needs, expectations and abilities; and
    • Tailoring of marketing and communications to different segments
    • Targeting of different segments

i2’s IMPACT model

So once we have an understanding of who we are helping our clients or partners to address, we apply our IMPACT model. The model’s basic premise is that the appeal to users or audiences of an Output can be predicted based on the degree to which the Output is Interesting (Palmgreen et al. 1982; Nielsen 1993) , Meaningful (Hassenzahl 2013), Personalised (Norman 1998; Hassenzahl 2003) , Affective (Agarwal et al. 2009), Collective (Pisoni 2020), and Transportive (Coelho et al. 2006) for a person.

Whether for our clients or partners, or with them, we apply our model using our IMPACT Ideation Canvas. Through the canvas, this step in our process enables the identification of features which will satisfy and delight users/ audiences. The ideation canvas can be applied to any form of Output, experiential or transactional, and we encourage you to try it for yourselves.  We also offer hands-on, accompanied training on its use within our open (limited capacity) training courses  or bespoke for your organisation.

So audience, affordances and functionalities are defined. What next?

We report to our clients and partners the results of the foundational research and development steps we have described above. Next it is over to the team responsible for producing, creating and developing the Output. In most of our projects the team includes Executive Producer(s), Artistic Director, Technical Director, Design Director, and Research and Marketing teams.

Of course, budget permitting we stay connected to the development. We advise, and provide iterative, formative evaluations of components of the Output as they are being developed.  These formative evaluations deploy a mix of Usability, User Experience and Design thinking methods, but we will save those for a future essay.

Evaluate Audience Impact

Finally, we recommend productions are evaluated using i2’s Audience Impact Metric.  This easy-to-use tool is based on over 25 years of the i2 team’s research on how best to measure audience impact of creative and cultural productions. It incorporates some of the most important items from i2’s 2001 measure, the ITC-Sense of Presence Inventory, alongside established metrics of Cultural Value, Global Quality, Emotional Intensity of the experience, and Willingness to Pay.  Whereas previously to obtain an evaluation using our method required studios to commission a study, in 2020 we launched the AIM as an online, self-service tool – for a fraction of the fee.

AIM results are key to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your production, from the audience perspective, and identifying an optimal pricing strategy for your distribution plans. We are delighted that some of the UK’s leading creative and cultural institutions, some of the UK’s smallest studios, and key international partners are all satisfied users of the AIM. They are satisfied because it delivers value to them.  We encourage you to use it too.

In summary

Robust research and user/ audience insight can be a key, solid foundation in the development of digital Outputs, whether functional, transactional Outputs, or rich, experiential and culturally impactful creative works.

Of course, it is but a first step with a whole lot of work to do to respond to the research, which must be led by the creative or brand teams.  But basing creative-led Outputs on solid research gives it a better chance of success, satisfying users or delighting audiences.  As such it is an investment to reduce the risk of innovating and providing confidence that the development of an Output will generate an excellent return on investment.

Note: i2 media research limited has researched and further developed the methodologies described in this piece, within the UKRI/Innovate UK funded Live Performance Demonstrator for which it serves as Audience Insight and Strategy Lead.  This is a multi-partner consortium project led by Royal Shakespeare Company, in partnership with several UK-based global leaders in live and digital performance and experience (Philharmonia, Punchdrunk, Manchester International Festival, Marshmallow Laser Feast), in audience and sector insight (i2 media research limited at Goldsmiths University of London, Nesta, de Montford University, The Space) and in creative-technical innovation (University of Portsmouth, Epic Games).


June 2021