4. The Web User: The Audience

The author distinguishes between the audience a site intends to attract and others who merely happen upon a site.

4.1 Understanding the Web User

The author provides some statistics about the average Web user: college educated young white males, who are unfamiliar with the medium.

EN: keep in mind that this information is dated. The demographics have changed drastically over the years, and users have greater experience simply because the medium has been around a while. The advice provided by the author, in general, will also reflect the state of the Web and its user base at this particular moment in history.

4.2 Defining an Audience

Simply stated, a Web site should be designed for its specific audience rather than the general Web user. The author suggests a three-step process for generating an audience profile:

  1. Identify the relevant individual differences.
  2. Identify and specialize the cognitive processing capabilities and limits.
  3. Generate audience definition and categorization.

These are covered in the next three parts of the chapter.

4.3 Individual Differences

A little confusion here - the author uses the term "difference" but does not indicate the sense in which he means that: different from what? I will assume he means this in two senses: First, how a site's audience is different from the general public (their specific characteristics); second, how members of that audience differ from one another (categories of users).

He defines four categories of "difference" and suggests their importance to a given site's objectives:

  1. Knowledge, experience, and skill - Important to a site that requires transaction-oriented and decision-making tasks
  2. Personality factors - A site related to entertainment
  3. Physical and demographic attributes - A site for the visually impaired or the elderly
  4. User levels - No example given.

Not all factors are necessarily applicable in every Web design situation. Ideally, the designer will consider all applicable factors, using the relative importance of each factor to resolve conflicting objectives.

4.3.1 Knowledge, Experience, and Skill

This set of characteristics includes:

4.3.2 Personality Factors

This set of characteristics includes:

4.3.3 Demographic and Physical Attributes

Demographic Attributes pertain to factors such as age, gender, salary, ethnicity, etc. Most research highlights specific differences among demographic segments, and a site that serves a specific segment should consider these differences.

Physical Attributes pertain to abilities and disabilities. Beyond the major handicaps (users who are blind/deaf/etc.) there are lesser debilitations, such as color-blindness, being hard of hearing (but not totally deaf), left-handedness, etc., that may come into play.

4.3.4 User Levels

The author divides users into three levels based on their expertise and experience using the Web: novice, experienced, and expert.

It's also worth noting that the level of experience is in the context of a specific Web site. An expert user on one site will be a novice at another (though his experience will enable him to "catch on" more quickly). Certain skills (how to submit a form, how to enable/disable cookies, etc.) translate neatly, others don't.

It's also been found that, in general, the more experience a user has with the Web in general, the more tasks they perform online and the more tasks they are comfortable performing online. (The author provides some statistics, but they are a bit dated.)

4.4 Cognitive Processing Capabilities and Limits

A perspective/theory: the Internet is an medium that stores information so that it may be retrieved and processed by users. In this way, it is the person who is the "software" and the Web that is the storage for data (albeit equipped with processing capabilities to help the user access the specific data he needs). Following this theory, the designer must consider the capabilities and limits of the human processor: the way people store, remember, and manipulate information.

The author provides a handful of random examples, mostly very nonsensical stuff (use bright colors to draw attention to important things, breaking long lists of choices into smaller components to accommodate attention span and memory, etc.), and doesn't provide a very good wrap-up at all.

My sense is that knowing these things in advance could help to design more usable pages, but even if these elements are not considered in design, any aspect that exceeds users cognitive capacities will be immediately evident in the testing phase.

4.5 Generating an Audience Profile

The author takes uses a list of various characteristics to create an "audience profile" for a site. The data includes a mish-mash of the characteristics described in section 4.3, above, and some description of the user demographics (e.g., 75% of the audience is age 30 or younger).

Statistics are drawn from various sources, including primary research (surveys/interviews with actual site users) and secondary research based on characteristics of the audience (if we learn a site serves retirees, look into research about that specific segment).

To be considered, a characteristic must be measurable, and it must be relevant to the design of the site (there are a lot of statistics that are irrelevant)

The author provides a few sample surveys, some of them quite lengthy, others a bit intrusive. I don't sense he has much experience or authority in the area of marketing research, and the treatment here is far from comprehensive, so I'll skip it. Suffice to say, do market research, and get a specialist involved so it is done well.