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There's No One-Size-Fits-All Internet: Why Audience Should Determine Website Design

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Why it's important to design your website to suit your audience
  • How different demographics interact with websites
  • Three steps all site owners should take

Men value a website's speed, while women value its ease of use.

Children won't explore a Web page until it fully loads.

The average teenager has a harder time figuring out how to use a website than the average adult.

Mobile Web users over the age of 45 are more impatient than any other age group when waiting for sites to load.

If any of those findings sound crazy to you, don't worry. When I first came across them, they sounded crazy to me, too. But they come from real studies conducted by reputable researchers, and they illustrate why site owners act at their own peril when they take a one-size-fits-all approach to site design.


Before I get into what site owners and marketers need to do to address their audiences, here's a bit more on research I've come across.

Men and women report different Web-usability priorities

In 2008, researchers John and Ann Pearson conducted a study according to which "one of the key differences related to gender was the relative strength females placed on the ease of use criteria and the navigation criteria as compared to males." According to the Pearsons' research, moreover, males placed significantly higher importance on the download speed of a website.

(The Pearsons noted that those findings support previous research, which had found that women use the Web for developing relationships and focus on ease of use, whereas men use the Web more for information gathering—hence, their focus on speed.)

Children use the Web differently

A study performed last year by usability guru Jakob Nielsen found a couple of interesting things about how children interact with websites:

  • Though adults have some (albeit limited) patience while waiting for pages to load, children want instant gratification. They expect to instantly see some kind of picture when they hit a button.
  • Children wait for images to completely load on a page before navigating to another page. They don't understand that a complete page load is not needed for the page to be functional. Not surprisingly, all that waiting frustrates them and likely discourages them from using a site.

Teenagers have distinct usability challenges

Almost everyone assumes that because teenagers are such talented texters, they must be more tech-savvy than adults, but the opposite is actually true. In another study, Nielsen discovered that teenagers have a relatively hard time completing tasks online. When given a set of tasks to perform on a website, teens had a success rate of just 55%, compared with a 66% success rate for adult users.

Nielsen reported that the teenagers' poor performance was based on three factors: insufficient reading skills, less sophisticated research strategies, and a dramatically lower patience level.

On Mobile, Middle-aged users are more impatient than younger users

In a survey, of a thousand mobile Web users, Equation Research found that although "Generation Y" generally gets slapped with the label of being impatient with page-load times, mobile Web users over the age of 45 are actually the most impatient group of all. They are much more likely than their younger counterparts to be willing to wait only 30 seconds or less to complete a transaction.

Every site owner and marketer should take these three steps

  1. Research your audience

    Chances are you have a pretty good idea of who's coming to your site. Now, you need some real data on how those people use the Web. The studies I mentioned are only the beginning.

    Google "usability research," along with keywords about your demographic, to see what studies come up. You might be surprised by what you learn.
  2. Design your site accordingly

    If your site is for children, use techniques such as progressive rendering to deliver the illusion of full page load so that kids can click faster. If your mobile site is for older users, keep it clean and fast-loading. ("Clean and fast" should be the mantra of pretty much anyone who builds websites for a living, but that's an argument for another day.)
  3. Test in the real world

    I'm a huge proponent of A/B and multivariate testing. If you're championing an uncluttered design with plain-language navigation for teens, but your designer thinks that just because a person is under the age of 18 they must love flashy graphics and "clever" navigation labels, an A/B test is the best way to settle the debate.

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Joshua Bixby is president of Strangeloop, a company that provides website acceleration solutions. Joshua also maintains the blog Web Performance Today.

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Comments

  • by Bill Thu Aug 25, 2011 via web

    To do an AB split test would you do two different web pages or do separate landing pages to test the two options before creating the entire site one way?

  • by Nick Stamoulis Fri Aug 26, 2011 via web

    No two websites should be exactly the same. Just because it works for the competition, that doesn't mean it is going to work for you and your audience! Your website has to be customized to meet your needs and the needs of your target audience.

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