Understanding your audience
I recently gave a presentation at OxonDigital in which I analysed the evolution of the web industry during the course of my lifetime. Self-indulgent navel gazing, perhaps, but there was a serious point to it – web audiences are evolving at an ever-increasing rate and understanding this and embracing it is now more essential for our clients and for web designers and developers than ever before.
The reasons for this evolution are clear to see. Back at the start of my career in 1997, there was a single means of accessing the web – via a desktop or laptop computer. That computer had to be physically plugged into a network or your home phone line. All this meant the parameters for web design were fixed and fairly predictable. Dare I say it, but creating web sites was easy back then.
Nowadays we live in the age of information overload and there are dozens of ways a web site can be viewed - on your mobile phone, your tablet, your MP3 player, your laptop, your desktop computer, your smart TV. The list goes on and web sites now need to be designed such that they work on each of these devices and the varying screen resolutions which they employ. Add into the mix that, as well as traditional web sites, the demand for native apps for mobile devices is growing and there are more and more well supported social networking sites demanding our attention AND a multitude of mainstream browsers which need to be catered for too. All things considered, it would be very easy for agencies and their clients to become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of factors that now need to be taken into account when planning any sort of web solution, online campaign or marketing strategy.
Challenging though all this is in itself, it’s also now more important than ever to take time to analyse web audiences and take into account what we need to be doing to improve their user experience both now and in the future.
Consider this: in the mid-1990s, the internet began to have an impact on the lives of the general populous in the developed world. This means that the current group of school leavers – the young adults who were born between 16 and 18 years ago – are the first generation to have spent their entire lives being aware of (and using) the Internet. I clearly remember a time in my childhood when the Internet wasn’t there. The current generation don’t.
The BBC recently did a study which analysed how today’s school leavers are using their computers and it makes interesting reading for an ‘old timer’ like me. Whilst doing their homework, they are online constantly. They’re on Facebook chat, they’re on Skype, they’re using Wikipedia and YouTube to find answers to homework questions and then sharing this information with their friends. Even more interesting for me was what they’re not doing. There was significantly less use of Google as an information source and very little communication via email – a noticeable difference compared to the way I use the web.
Furthermore, there was evidence that this generation of internet users were comfortable using multiple applications in a way which differs from those of us who have learned to use the internet later in life. Despite using large format screens, the subjects studied were using small browser and application windows and monitoring them all simultaneously, rather than maximising everything as we might expect. This clearly has implications when designing web sites for larger screen formats. In other words, don’t trust those screen resolution reports in Google Analytics, do some browser size analysis instead.
The need to consider the changes in learned behaviour which web audiences are now demonstrating doesn’t stop there either. I have two young daughters who will be part of the next generation of web users – school leavers in 12 to 15 years’ time. Despite being aged just 4 and 1 respectively, they are already happily picking up iPhones and iPads and using the touch screen interface with a truly scary level of understanding. This learned behaviour means that they now expect every electronic device to have a touch screen. My laptop screen has little fingerprint marks all over it as evidence of this. There’s a great video on You Tube of a girl about the same age as my youngest which demonstrates this expectation at an even greater extreme.
All of this underlines that the next generation of web users will think differently again to those that are leaving school now and why, when we’re planning new web solutions and online strategies, we need to be thinking about the audience that we’re designing for, how they’re likely to consume the information we’re presenting both now and in the near future.
This is easy to say, clearly, but very difficult to deliver. Marketing departments are now being pulled in so many different directions – web sites, mobile sites, responsive design, native apps, social – that setting a clear online strategy is absolutely essential. Making that strategy adaptable enough to change as technology advances and audiences evolve is even more crucial. Then there’s the tricky issue of helping clients justify the budgets necessary to support the volume of suppliers, code and content which all of these different activities and applications require.
Difficult those these budgets can be to find sometimes, the simple fact though is that audiences now expect to be able to communicate with us in a way which, even back in 1997, we simply couldn’t have imagined possible but which are now an unavoidable part of daily life and, therefore, a commercial necessity.