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Clear & Simple: Developing Effective Print Materials for Low-Literate Readers

  • Updated: 02/27/2003

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Step 2: Conduct Target Audience Research

Target audience research includes reviewing existing data and/or gathering new data to understand relevant physical, behavioral, demographic, and psychographic characteristics of your audience. This research can tell you: what the target audience already knows about your topic; what rumors, myths, and misinformation may exist about the topic; how audience members feel about the topic; and what questions and information gaps there are. Research also can help you define specific ethnic, cultural, and lifestyle preferences of your audience. This information is critical to developing culturally relevant materials, which are vital to reaching audiences at all literacy levels.

In conducting target audience research, the first task is to check existing sources of information, such as library databases; health statistics compiled by groups such as state and local health departments and the National Center for Health Statistics; Government or voluntary health organizations who have worked with your audience; and sources of polling information, such as polling companies. The box labeled "Information You Need" suggests the types of data to collect.


Information You Need About Your Audience

  • Age, sex, ethnicity, income and education levels, places of work, and residence.
  • Causative/preventive behaviors related to your topic.
  • Related knowledge, attitudes, and practices.
  • Patterns of use of related services.
  • Cultural habits, preferences, and sensitivities related to your topic.
  • Barriers to behavior change.
  • Effective motivators (e.g., benefits of change, fear of consequences, incentives, or social support).

In some cases, critical information about your audience will not be available in existing data. At this point, you may decide to conduct new research of your own to fill these information gaps. Whenever possible, supplement national data with local population statistics. National data may not capture unique characteristics of your audience.


Formal methods used to find out more about the target audience include:

Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices Surveys

Surveys that measure the respondent's knowledge, attitudes, and practices on a specific topic are conducted by telephone, by mail, or face-to-face with members of the target audience.

Advantages: Provide highly targeted, directly relevant information; can provide estimates representative of the total population.

Disadvantages: Require time, statistical expertise, and resources to conduct; need a mechanism for locating and reaching large numbers of your target audience. Mail surveys are inappropriate for most low- literate readers.

Focus Groups

A facilitator, preferably one who has characteristics in common with the target audience (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, shared experiences), conducts 1- to 2-hour group discussions with 6 to 10 representatives of the target audience.

Advantages: Require fewer audience representatives than other research methods; help explain why an audience feels or acts as they do; allow indepth discussion of issues; faster and can be less expensive than surveys.

Disadvantages: Findings cannot be projected to the population as a whole; findings are qualitative, rather than quantitative; require expertise in conducting, reporting, and applying results appropriately; need to locate and motivate members of your target audience to participate.

Audience Interviews

An interviewer conducts individual interviews with members of the target audience so that issues can be explored at length. These often occur in locations frequented by members of the target audience, such as clinics, community centers, Government service centers, literacy programs, and Adult Basic Education (ABE) and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. They may be arranged by appointment or conducted with people who agree on the spot to participate.


Advantages: May yield more indepth information than focus groups.

Disadvantages: More time and labor intensive than focus groups.


For more information about quantitative and qualitative research methods, see Making Health Communication Programs Work: A Planner's Guide andDeveloping Health and Family Planning Print Materials for Low-Literate Audiences: A Guide.


Questions You May Have About Research

Must I use these research methods to develop an effective low-literacy product? I do not always have the time or the budget to do new audience research.

Many product developers echo this concern. While formal research methods can provide invaluable insights, many projects will not be able to make use of them due to a variety of practical constraints. The best approach is to make audience research a routine part of your product-development process for audiences of all literacy levels; then the time and budget for research will be built-in automatically.

What are the alternatives to formal research? Product developers commonly use two other methods to get needed information about their target audience: (1 ) seeking input from target audience members who agree to serve on an advisory board, or (2) seeking input from individuals who have close working contacts with the target audience.

"I've worked with this audience for 20 years," notes one writer, "and I have gained lots of insights. I feel confident in using this knowledge as a starting point. But I supplement it with advisory board guidance when I can't conduct formal research. And even when I can't do all the up-front research I would prefer, I know that pretesting will supplement what I've learned earlier and ensure that the product is on target."

When you rely on indirect information sources, such as asking health professionals what they believe their patients think, feel, or do, it is especially important to pretest the product with members of the audience themselves.

A low-literacy educator stresses that, "It's critical to get direct audience involvement at some point. No matter how well you or others think you know your target group, only someone with limited-literacy skills can provide a true test of your materials' comprehensibility and appropriateness. Programs that rely only on secondary or 'gatekeeper' opinions can make big mistakes."

If I do audience research before I develop my concept, how can I get information that is specific to my product?

The steps suggested here need not be completed in strict chronological order. In many cases, audience research occurs in several stages as product developers have need for new or different information.

Often before a concept statement is fully developed, you will have certain fundamental ideas in mind that could be tested during audience research. For example, you may have a key message line that you have always used in your products. Will it work with this audience? In producing a booklet on food safety, the FDA found that their traditional message, "keep hot foods hot, keep cold foods cold," did not communicate to low-literate readers. While the words are simple, they did not convey safety concepts clearly.

Another example might be the planning of a campaign or a product that includes a celebrity. In the initial research stage, you could determine whether the celebrities you have in mind are credible-- or known-- to this audience. One writer recalls the results of not taking this step. "I used to staff exhibits where we offered our products to health organizations with low-literate clients. Numerous program directors and nurses commented on one of our posters that used gambling odds-maker 'Jimmy the Greek' to convey a health message. They told us that their clients did not understand the concept at all. The target audience is response to the poster was 'Who's he?' or 'What does he have to do with health?' The program directors said the only way they could use the poster was to turn it over and write their own message on the blank side."