Bonny Colville-Hyde

Product Director

Understanding the impact of the cost of living crisis on your audience

6 mins read

The cost of living crisis is forcing everyone to do more with less. Beneficiaries' needs are increasing. Supporters’ means are dwindling. You will probably need to adapt your approach to solving the problems set out in your strategy, as things are changing so rapidly. But to effectively make changes, you must first truly understand how events are impacting your audiences.

Collage of illustrated faces

Many people will be affected in different ways

Economic pressure will cause changes to your audiences behaviour, on and offline. Understanding and changing your approach to this is going to be key to maintaining (and building) audience relationships. It’s also essential to have real needs at the heart of any decisions that are being made. Having an up-to-date view on what these are, will be invaluable.

Building knowledge of your audiences is not a step in a project. It needs to be a daily commitment to engage and reflect upon their changing situation, context, engagement and needs. This is more true now than ever before, as the pressure many groups of people are under will cause significant changes to their mental and physical health, general behaviour and access to the internet.

Budgets and spending on user research

The state of the economy, and the financial pressure it is putting on charities, makes it feel harder than ever to deliver your mission. Getting a good, impactful return on investment from your digital budget is essential. Investing in audience research will give you the guidance needed to direct where spending will have the most impact. For instance, you might find you have issues with the vocabulary used in your content, that would be easier to fix and deliver stronger results than building something new. Cultivating a rich understanding of how people’s behaviour is changing will illuminate areas of potential you might otherwise miss.

Researching humans and human behaviour

Building a vibrant understanding of your audience(s) must involve both their online and offline experiences. This will give you a broader understanding of their circumstances and motivations, and usually leads to new insights being discovered. If you find you are hearing the same things each time you run research, it can be a sign that it's time to try some new techniques where you can learn new things.

Cloud with list of behavioural influences

People’s behaviour is influenced by an ever-changing set of contextual requirements that compete for importance

Really great, useful audience research is made up of a spectrum of approaches. When combined, they will tell you who, where, what, how and why. And it will highlight the subtleties between different segments of your audience.

A little look at some research techniques

Depth interviews

To understand the context behind behaviour(s), you’ll need to listen to real people. Depth interviews, or listening sessions are a fantastic method of getting really rich insight into people's lives. These sessions give us time to listen into, and hear the context and experience people are having both with and beyond the services we’re looking after. These sessions are often quite loose and follow the direction participants want to take, so they can feel wild at first, but that's where a lot of their value comes from - the things that we’re not expecting, or looking for can turn out to be the things that hold the most value.

Diary studies

Diary studies enable participants to record their experiences and feelings throughout a journey. These can unearth fascinating insights into the day-to-day experiences driving different behaviours, and where needs along the way are not being met. They can also draw out changes in behaviour over time, which can be hard to pin-point once someone has completed a process as they will often forget lots of details.


Ethnographic, observational research, can bring to life what you have heard people talk about, because you see things taking place in real life. It also highlights real-world objects, materials and processes that support services that might not exist digitally, but have the potential to be added.

Triangulating research

You need to use different research approaches to learn different things. Triangulation is where you take multiple sources of information and synthesise (compare) them together. This process gives us a way to find patterns, check how behaviours emerge, and highlights anomalies that need further investigation.

For example, when you gather qualitative research, it is useful to see if any patterns you hear play out when you review search logs, or your mapped customer journeys. You will start to build up a strong picture of why some users drop out of a journey, and why some continue, or why some never even make it to your website.

Through ongoing triangulation and synthesis, you can also start to see how different audience segments change over time. For instance, someone newly diagnosed with a condition may change their use of language as they become more informed, so might use different search terms to access information. And of course, how their finances are forcing them to adapt their behaviour.

Address bias and assumptions

It is essential to speak directly with audiences to hear their unsanitised language, experience, feelings and needs. Racism, ableism and cultural bias get hidden and jumbled into product design and thinking when we’re listening to our own voices instead of those of the real audience.

It is easy for anyone to believe they are behaving empathetically when they’re just being sympathetic. Real empathy requires us to have a cognitive understanding of a person’s situation, an emotional understanding of their experience and a level of compassion towards them.

The only way to ensure marginalised voices are heard within the product development and design process is to keep engaging representative audience members and involving them in the process. It is tricky, but it is better than building and maintaining things that exclude people or don’t create the impact that is needed.

You may need to adopt different approaches to access marginalised groups, and to make sure they feel safe as well as heard. This is something our UX team can collaborate with you on, and find ways to get a wide, representative set of participants involved in user research.

Research cycle

Researching human behaviour is never “done” as it will always be changing and adapting, so the cycle of qualitative and quantitative research you run needs to match it

Devices and audiences

Invest in research that allows you to see participants using their own devices to do their tasks, in their own settings. This will give you a brutal sense of how challenging tasks can be when people do not have the same access privileges that you might do: cracked screens, slow data connection, assistive technology and/or low screen resolutions can create challenging experiences. Seeing and hearing these challenges can mean you adapt your priorities and make your experience more inclusive. As the cost of living crisis bites, we can expect to see people using older devices longer, and having less access to data/internet which will change their browsing habits.

What if you really, really can't access your audience?

It's always best to consult directly with real people, as you’ll get the richest, most useful and representative information, however sometimes you can’t. You may be unable to schedule research due to costs, access issues, or even ethical issues. If that is the case, the best thing to do, rather than nothing, is to speak with the people that interface with the audience you’re trying to reach.

Call centre and helpline staff have a remarkable understanding of people using a service, from the language they use through to their attitude, concerns and prejudices. Sessions with these members of your team can be extremely valuable. You do not need to know personally identifying information about callers. It's about collecting general information around the language people use, and the types of things they are trying to do and where they have problems. And, if you can run participant based user research, you can still use additional information collected from call centres or people that process emails to supplement it.

It’s not going to be easy, but you’re not on your own

The months and (probably) years ahead are going to be really hard for people and organisations. We want to help you deliver your vision and help the people that you are trying to reach. Keeping them truly at the centre of your activities, and adapting to their changing needs and behaviours will ensure you stay relevant and achieve your goals. If you would like to talk to us about the challenges you have understanding your audience, and mapping the services you have to their behaviours we’d love to speak to you. Email us via [email protected]