Understanding Your Web Audience

by November 1, 2002

"The elements that contribute to superior experiences are knowable and reproducible, which makes them designable." —Nathan Shedroff, Experience Design

Although there are lots of elements to consider when designing compelling Web experiences (writing style, look and feel, information organization -to name just a few), there is one "knowable" element that can be used to appraise the rest: audience. A detailed understanding of your target audience provides you with an effective metric by which to evaluate all your design decisions: structure (content and organization), visual presentation (personality and tone), and interaction (functionality and behavior). From cultural dimensions to computer expertise, the more you know about your audience the easier it becomes to design for (and communicate to) them.

"Human needs should be the guide for our technologies." —Ben Shneiderman

While it's true that anyone with a Web browser can access your site, your target audience really consists of the people that will most often make use of (read, search, shop, explore) your site. Because your site can't do everything for everybody, its success largely depends on meeting the needs and expectations of this pre-defined group of people. After all, the principle means for gauging a site's performance (user feedback, community interactions, traffic reports, sales figures, etc.) are your audience and their actions.

Likewise, the effectiveness of your site's main message is also audience-dependent. Communication cannot take place unless someone is there to interpret a message and give it meaning. How the message will be interpreted largely depends on the receiver and their state of mind, previous experiences, goals, culture, and knowledge. These factors can be used to define (and, more importantly, familiarize yourself with) your target audience.

Describing Your Audience

Whenever attempting to make sense of something, we instinctively look for different ways to describe it. The more characteristics you can affix to an object, person, or place, the better you can understand it and even make predictions about it. Knowing the layout of a city may help you determine the fastest route home, but if you don't know where traffic builds up, it might actually end up being the slowest way. Similarly if you go forward with a narrow understanding of your audience, you might find yourself heading in the wrong direction, and need to take an expensive U-turn.

Familiarizing yourself with the demographics, cultural associations, environment, modes of interaction, experience, and needs and expectations of your audience should help keep you on track.

Demographics can help isolate the characteristics that distinguish your audience. Gender, income level, age, religion, geographic location, and more, all provide valuable information about your audience -albeit in a rather sterile manner. A deeper understanding can come from looking at the psychological aspects that characterize groups: excited jazz fans, TV show devotees, nervous mothers, etc. This type of characterization provides a better understanding of your audience's motivations and consequently, their expectations.

Additionally, you can look at the appropriateness of archetypes. Mitch McCasland describes archetypes as "universally recognized concepts embedded in the collective subconscious of the human species." Archetypes such as the Outlaw, the Ruler, or the Hero can help you better understand the emotional and intellectual needs of your audience. Are they hoping to feel rebellious (different) or empowered (in control)?

McCasland points out that such archetypes are observable "across all cultures throughout the world" However, many aspects of communication (color, time, distance, etc.) differ from culture to culture. Edward Hall described several of these differences in his premier anthropological work: The Silent Language. His point that "culture is communication" underscores the fact that cultural differences cannot be ignored. Even cultural dimensions (as outlined by Aaron Marcus [PDF]) such as power-distance, collectivism vs. individualism, and uncertainty avoidance help shape the perspective your audience brings to your Web site.

But people are products of not only their cultures, but also their environments, and the two are often intertwined. The sights and sounds of your audience's surroundings help determine what they consider appropriate and inviting. For example, if you are targeting high school students, you might want to look at the styles of clothing or music that they consider worth their time. In addition, consider the state of mind of your audience. When they come to your site are they nervous, excited, or perhaps sad? Are they using your product at home, at the office, or on a busy trading floor?

Be careful not to:

  • Lose sight of the individual in favor of the "average" user
  • Confuse users (individuals interacting with a specific portion of your site) with your audience (the group of people you are trying to reach with your message)
  • Consider your client to be your audience (unless they are really are -for example: an intranet)

When investigating your audience's environment, it's also a good idea to look for distinct hardware and software limitations. Though steady improvements in browsers and a better understanding of existing technical discrepancies have made designing for various system configurations easier, you still need to watch for slow modems, old browsers, and differences in displays. In addition to old technology, you might also have to contend with new users. Coming to terms with the experience level of your audience means understanding the differences between novice and expert users of not only your site and its content but the entire Web.

Your audience's experiences with your site's domain (content) determines if they are experts (have complete understanding, need theory), technicians (have/need practical knowledge), executives (need top-level information to make decisions), or non-specialists (have no knowledge but are curious). Each of these groups benefits from a presentation of content adapted to their needs.

Similarly, the types of interactions most frequently employed by your audience should be considered. Jeffery Zeldman distinguishes three such modes as: users (employ tools to accomplish tasks, need clarity and usability), viewers (seek entertainment, need engaging presentations), and readers (spend time with your writing, need comfortable reading conditions).

Learning From Your Audience

If you take the time to look at your audience using the approaches outlined above, you will inevitably have a clearer understanding of the intellectual and emotional needs and expectations they bring to your site. But it doesn't end there. Your audience and their actions will continually teach you. Take advantage of this fact by observing how people really use your site, and gather valuable feedback whenever you can. As you continually improve your understanding of your audience, your designs will follow suit.

Originally published in Creative Behavior -November, 2002