Let us not forget the most important stakeholder of all, our potential visitors. All communication events, whether in print, on television, or on the web, should be aimed at a target audience. Identifying the target audience is second in importance only to defining the goals of a site. After all, you can’t meet the needs of an audience if you don’t know who that audience is.
Accordingly, we now must ask, who are the people most likely to frequent the site? Identifying a target audience isn’t necessarily easy in the worldwide, heterogeneous universe of the web. Sometimes it’s hard to ascertain even the country our audience resides in, much less more specific data. Still, it can be done, as any marketing guru would be happy to tell you. Sometimes it’s just common sense, while at other times it requires extensive research.
What are the demographics of the target audience, in terms of income, age, education, family status, and health conditions? What problems do they have? What appeals to them? What do they need? Unless you have a very clear definition of the audience, you cannot design a site to appeal to that audience.
Here are the characteristics to define during the process of nailing down your target audience:
Gender, age range, health status. Females and males tend to prefer a different look for a web site. If you need to satisfy both, you will need to create a design that appeals to both. Age and health status have implications for issues like vision impairment and mobility. Additionally, older folks might well be less computer-literate because they didn’t grow up with computers as younger generations have.
Economic status, employment, education level, social group, nationality, language, values. Economic status and employment might dictate whether a visitor accesses the web from a high-end home computer, an intranet at the office, or a low-end computer at the public library. Education level, social group, nationality, and language dictate the level of writing you can use.
Values can dictate everything from the language that won’t offend the audience to the products that are appropriate to sell on the site.
Knowledge of technology, usage patterns, favorite sites, web surfing patterns and frequency. Computer experience is an important factor in determining the characteristics of such elements as navigation and search methods.
Will your visitors find your site from a search engine, a banner ad, a link on another site, printed promotional materials, or from a friend’s referral?
Computer Equipment Profile
Operating system, system speed and power, connection speed. You will be making design decisions based upon this knowledge. For instance, bandwidth (speed of the connection) is less of a concern if most of your visitors are on high-end systems within a corporate intranet, but a major concern if some of your visitors are on low-speed, dial-up lines.
Frequency Of Visits
Repeatedly or infrequently? Infrequent visitors in particular need sites that are exceedingly easy to use, because they will have to re-learn how to use the site each time they visit.
Location Of Access
From home, a business, a public-access location. For instance, an office worker who might enjoy background sound at home will be more than mildly irritated if your site blares “noise” when he’s surfing the web from his cubicle at work. After all, that sound tells everyone in the surrounding cubicles that someone is goofing off.
What other sites do your visitors patronize? When you know what these are, you can assess the bar that has been set for the visitor experience.
Internal Or External
Are they internal (for example, doing back-end data entry using a BUI application) or external (as they would be for most public access web sites)? Security issues can be important in either case. For instance, not all employees are typically granted access to every page on the company intranet. Another site might need to protect the security of credit card numbers from both internal and external visitors.
What do visitors expect your site to look like? This information will be critical when you progress to the visual design of the site.
When characterizing one or more target audiences for your site, the more specific and vivid you can be, the better. Create a persona (an imaginary person or character) to symbolize each of the main types of people you expect to use the site), and give each one a name, a personality, and a brief biography. You might even associate a picture with the persona, to make him or her more memorable. As you work through the design of your site, call up the persona in your mind and ask yourself, “What would this person like to see on the site? How can I make this person’s task easier to accomplish?”
The target audience and their needs must be the central focus in every decision you make. If you understand your target audience, you can determine what they want, design for them, and test with them. Satisfy their needs, and you have earned repeat visitors.
Keep in mind that the importance of your site to the target audience has great bearing on what that audience will tolerate. Fans of a popular rock band might be more than willing to wait for an interminably long download just to get their hands on a short MP3 clip of the band’s newly-released single. In contrast, a visitor who is only mildly interested will have little tolerance for such a long wait.