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Chapter 03. Phase 1: Define the Project > Understanding Your Audience

Understanding Your Audience

The web is all about the audience. What needs, capa bilities, wants, and fickle characteristics of your audience will you need to know? All of them (or at the very least, as many as possible). But because speculation is not credible here, do some sleuthing.

Use the initial data gathered from the Client Survey to get a strong sense of who your site visitors are, why they are coming to the site, and what tasks they will be performing. A typical audience demographic description is a very general listing of stats and data pertaining to everything from where and how they connect to the internet to age and income. You may need to profile more than one target group (with multiple audiences, create separate audience demographics). And keep in mind that your client may not have a clear or complete vision of audience; you may have extra work in store.

Use this demographic information to create a general profile for each visitor type, which will be used in the Communication Brief. This should be a concise paragraph about each visitor type, describing who they are and what they do as a real person, written without using overarching descriptions or nonspecific stats. Here is an example of a general profile:

“Typical site visitor is a university student between the ages of 18 and 22, who accesses the web on a daily basis. S/he is extremely web savvy and completes online purchases for books, CDs, DVDs, and gifts regularly — 2 or 3 times per month. S/he has high-speed internet access both at the dorm and at the library, most often using the library computers for research and the dorm computer for personal correspondence. Typical tasks on the site include searching for authors, titles, and products to purchase. S/he has a username and password and is able to complete purchases quickly and easily.”

Request Existing Material

The client may have existing research about the target audience and market. Ask questions. Gather as much information as possible. Keep in mind, however, that the client's business model may have changed in a year's time, so the provided information may no longer be relevant… or complete.

If you have the resources, we highly recommend building a few detailed individual profiles [3.1]. To achieve this, you may need to interview both the client and a few actual users to gain a real-world view of the target audience. The results will be worth the effort.

3.1. This sample audience profile gives a detailed description of a typical site visitor. Also called a “persona,” this document can be as brief or as detailed as your information, creativity, and time allow. Most sites draw several distinctly definable audience types. You may need to create more than one profile.

Outlining Technical Requirements

What technological “latests and greatests” will your redesign project require? This is, without question, one of most significant factors in defining the project. A redesign project that is front-end only — even if extensive in scope — is a very different project from one that also includes dynamic content and security capabilities. It is not unusual for clients to want all kinds of bells and whistles without understanding the associated costs, or if a better, more appropriate solution could be found (content should determine the technology, not the other way around). Analyzing both basic and backend technology needs will gather the data necessary to show where client expectations do not match reality [3.2].

3.2. Clients often have only a vague idea of what features actually cost. Once true costs and timing are communicated, clients frequently adjust their technical expectations.

Because the client may have (and often does have) unrealistic expectations, it is the project manager's responsibility to make sure the client understands not only the fundamentals of redesigning the website, but also how each choice and decision that is made impacts both the scope, timeframe and therefore the budget of the project.

Expert Topic: Kate Gomoll on User Profiling

Designers and developers need to keep real people in their minds as they design. Reality TV has been so successful because real people are endlessly fascinated by the unexpected things that other real people actually do and say. As you define your audience, if you can write a story about an actual person — complete with pictures, hobbies, quirks, product preferences, pet peeves, and details about that person's daily life — the designers and developers will actually read it and, more importantly, absorb it.

Typically, companies run focus groups or conduct market surveys to learn about the potential users of their products. The results from this research are traditionally presented in summary reports that describe user goals, needs, and desires in terms of percentages and trends. While this information is useful for overall product planning and marketing, it often isn't specific enough for product designers and web developers.

The summary reports that most research departments create are an abstract representation of people. They are usually a discussion of trends and market breakdowns, lacking any details about individual customers. But designers and developers need details when they create a product. Details about users' motivations, frustrations, and desires help the development team make important and strategic decisions. There will always be disagreement over how a new or redesigned product should look and work. But when you have profiles of real users at your fingertips, the arguments shift from “I would never do that” or “My Mom would hate that” to arguments about actual users like Paige [3.1]. Suddenly, team members are asking whether Paige would require instant-on functionality — meaning that the functionality automatically loads and doesn't need to be called upon by a visitor — or whether Paige would be turned off by an advertising banner. The designers use the data in the profiles to help make sensible design tradeoffs.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't conduct research using a decent sample size or that you should stop doing focus groups and conducting surveys. But often, schedules don't allow even the most minimal research. Still, if time is spent figuring out what types of users fall into the target market group and then visiting at least one person from each of the market segments, very useful profiles can result. Sometimes teams will launch a grassroots profiling effort — even when it's not in the budget — simply because designers need them! Designers simply can't do their jobs without knowing specific information about the potential users.

What kinds of information should you include in your profiles?

  • Basic demographics

  • Day-in-the-life stories

  • Photographs of people, their environments, their tools

  • Likes and dislikes

  • Observational data

  • Product usage patterns

  • Frustrations with your product or similar products

  • Product-related desires

Because these profiles are only useful if people want to read them, take the time to write a compelling narrative; make each person you profile memorable. Use the details you collect from users to develop each person as a character. If you have the time and budget, createprofiles for many potential users. Then roll them up to create just a few composite characters to represent the user segments. These profiles, also called personas, will become shorthand descriptions for the user segments that your product serves. The key to successful user profiling is to work from actual user data, not hypothetical, made-up stories. You'll find that the truth really is stranger — and more revealing — than fiction.

Kate Gomoll is president of Gomoll Research & Design Inc. (www.gomolldesign.com), a consulting company that specializes in user experience design. The company's recent clients includeDirecTV, Charles Schwab, WebTV, Hewlett-Packard, Internet Appliance Network, and Compaq.Kate has published chapters on user observation in The Art of Human Computer Interface Design (Addison-Wesley, 1990) and The Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines (Addison-Wesley, 1992). A nationally recognized expert in the field of software interface design and usability, Kate teaches customer research methods at conferences and workshops worldwide. She also taught user-centered design workshops through UCLA Extension for many years. Prior to starting her consulting business, Kate was an interface designer in the Advanced Technology Group at Apple Computer.

Understanding Audience Capabilities

It comes down to this question: Who is the client willing to leave behind? Some sites such as Amazon.com or eBay depend on appealing to all audiences. If your targeted audience is everybody-with-a-computer-and-then-some, users with older — and sometimes newer — technologies must be accommodated, and bandwidth requirements must be kept low. Many web users have small monitors, use older browsers, and still connect with modems — these users may be as valuable to the client as those with a T3 connection and the absolute latest browsers. High-bandwidth requirements would frustrate and alienate someone on a slow modem and would probably cause that user to abort the page load. Result: lost business.

High or low bandwidth? Most clients will know which group they want to target. It is your job as project manager to determine what that audience can accept technically and then scope the project accordingly.

When catering to high-bandwidth users, the client wants to show all the latest and greatest with little concern for who gets left behind. Clients want an audience that supports all their high-end technologies (the newest Flash plug-ins, extensive use of style sheets, the very latest browsers, etc.). These sites tend to be experimental and artistically cutting edge [3.3].

3.3. High bandwidth: www. runway.polo.com loads in seconds with a high-speed connection, but it takes over a minute for users with a modem. It requires multiple plug-ins (which may deter some visitors) and the streaming media will crash some older browsers, even if the connection speed is adequate.

Sites that need to be accessible to anyone (including the wireless market), anywhere (even where DSL is unavailable), must appeal to a low-bandwidth- capable audience. These sites need to load quickly even on slower modems. (We are no longer targeting 28.8 modem speeds but must consider 56K if considering a broad, at-home market.) Examples include www.amazon.com [3.4].

3.4. Low bandwidth: www.amazon.com downloads in a snap, even on 56K modems, and designs its functionality to be stable. It is even accessible to audiences still on 4.x browsers.

Most companies want to shoot for a widely targeted audience, one that includes users on both modem and higher-speed connections. These companies don't want to lose the users needing low-bandwidth access, but they want to accommodate some higher technology and appeal to users who can and do appreciate what high bandwidth can allow. The site for the Issey Miyake fashion collection [3.5] accomplishes this by loading a home page that offers broadband and modem options. Some sites, like www.macromedia.com, even take the choice away from the audience and incorporates programming to detect which browser is being used and automatically directs users to the site they can access.

3.5. Aiming to satisfy both high and low is usually achieved by making concessions to each. www.isseymiyake.com (circa December 2003) loads a home page that shows none of its actual product and offers the option not between Flash and HTML but broadband vs. modem. The broadband option crashes some not-quite-up-to-the-minute browsers, but the online experience of this option is (at press time) cutting edge.

Analyzing Audience Capabilities

Once you know who your audience is, start determining their technical capabilities. What percentage of your audience is still at an 800×600 screen resolution? What percentage has the latest RealPlayer plug-in installed? At what browser level is most of your audience? What bandwidth can these people comfortably handle? (Does the client even care? Maybe not, if the purpose of the site is merely to display.)

Your goal is to identify your target audience's technical capabilities so you can set standards for the team to work within. These standards must be in alignment with the expectations of the client. Keep in mind that your key client contact may not be the best person to answer these questions. Interviewing the client's technical team, if there is one, will probably yield better results. Depending on your expertise, you may want your tech lead to talk to your client's tech lead.

Determining Technical Needs

Use the Expanded Tech-Check worksheet (available for download from www.web-redesign.com) to determine what, if any, backend programming needs you have. When you have completed this simple worksheet, you will know whether you need to implement a separate workflow for backend development. Either way, front-end only or front-end and backend together, the completed Expanded Tech-Check worksheet is a good thing to have on hand as reference for your team.

Site Specific Statistics

Many organizations continuously audit the internet audience at large, tracking overall audience statistical data. However, much more specific stats are also available to show the percentage of browser types and screen resolutions accessing your site. Though much of this information might be available for free through your ISP or server software, a paid account with www.hitbox.com, www.webtrends.com, or www.hitslink.com [3.6] may be able to offer better information.

3.6. Data from a Hitslink account tied to a specific domain shows customized and meaningful information.

Bring in Your Technical Expert Early

Whether a straightforward front-end redesign or a technical behemoth, now is the time to bring the design and the technical expertise together. Getting key tech personnel in synch with the front-end team early, especially as the project is being defined, will help identify — even eliminate — potential issues along the way.

Tech Spec

Creating a written specifications document that details and itemizes how a conceived site will function is a must-do for most large websites. (A less comprehensive version is a should-do for smaller sites.) If the website can be programmed entirely on the front end, you can ensure that everyone is using the same terminology and has an identical understanding of the site's technical parameters by preparing a Tech Spec. However, if complex functionality will be required and backend engineering is necessary, a considerably more detailed document called a Functional Spec will need to be created. In either case, you will want input and sign-off from all project decision-makers, both team and client. For further information on the Functional Spec (it documents all the technology involved in all planned database-dependent functionality or other complex interactivity), or on working with complex functionality, see Chapter 9.

The Expanded Tech-Check

These questions will help determine larger-scale technology issues that may include high-level programming and backend development needs. This is used initially as a checkpoint at a very basic level to identify client expectations. When you are finished, email all compiled information back to the project manager on the web development team.

  1. Please identify whether you currently use any of the following features on your site. Describe in as much detail as possible. (Check all that apply and describe briefly below.)

    □ Search engine

    □ Personalization (login/cookie set)

    □ Security features

    □ Survey/voting tools

    □ Email newsletter distribution

    □ Shopping cart

    □ Discussion board/bulletin board

    □ News/press release area

    □ Other_________________________________________________________



  2. List any other features that you hope to add to your site, now or in the future.




  3. Are there or will there be any e-commerce transactions on the site (secure transactions, interface with inventory database, and fulfillment)?

    □ Yes (Please describe in detail below.)

    □ No



  4. Is there or will there be login, registration, and/or personalization incorporated?

    □ Yes (Please describe in detail below.)

    □ No



  5. Do you currently or will you in the future use a content management system (useful, for example, in the management of e-commerce inventory or text-publishing databases) to dynamically update and deploy content?

    □ Yes (Please describe in detail below.)

    □ No





  6. Does the site need to integrate with any preexisting database system? If so, what kind of database is currently being used (FileMaker, Access, Oracle, SQL)?




  7. Will you be using any scripts or code that have already been established? Are they server-side or client-side (if known)?

    □ Yes (Please describe in detail below.)

    □ No



  8. Please list names and contact information for the current tech lead and any third-party vendors/providers that we may need to talk with to gather additional details.




If you answered “yes” to any of the preceding Expanded Tech-Check questions, you will need to begin a separate workflow track of development, engineering, and execution. Please refer to Chapter 9 for more information.

This document is available for download from www.web-redesign.com.

Expert Topic: Nathan Shedroff On the Emotional Future of Branding

“Brand” and “branding” are now common words in the lexicon of both designers and businesspeople. Since the late 1990s, these have been discussed at all levels in companies and other organizations — especially online. While there is still disagreement over definitions, the discussion alone points to an acceptance of importance. In fact, online media is what forced a new understanding of brand and thrust it into a new position in both design and business. Interactive media, in general, and online media, specifically, remind us that brands are interactive and are not the static material that our complacency had defined them as (print, outdoor, packaging, etc.). Now that we've begun to rediscover that brands are interactive, what's next?

We still need to foster a more coherent definition about what is and isn't a brand and where brand boundaries lie, but beyond that the conversation quickly dies. There is little discussion about where the state of branding is going — or should go — and little about its growing or waning influence in business and culture, online or off.

Added to this is a pronounced rise in anti-brand and anti-corporate rhetoric and demonstration. Often this is the result of frustration with corporate and consumer culture more than it is a true reflection of the power or satisfaction of branding among the public. All people appear to use brands, but which ones they support or demonstrate against depends more on which brands reflect values they share or don't than whether the mechanism of representing values itself is the problem.

Perhaps the most value that online media can bring to the brand equation is connectivity. For sure, online media have unique and particular traits, but one of their greatest strengths is their ubiquity and ability to serve as a nexus for the brand experiences in all other media. For example, websites and email are one of the best ways for companies to serve at their customers' convenience. No customer service or “relationship management” system would be complete without online tools and solutions, precisely because interactive media are, inherently, two-way. Companies are learning that their experiences (and brands) are only built successfully over time by engaging people in an ongoing conversation or relationship.

The more companies can engage their customers (and vendors, suppliers, etc.) on a personal and appropriate level, the more they do so on an emotional level. This is where brands gain their strength. Our interaction with websites providing services, features, and functionality carries with it emotional weight and value. Sometimes these experiences are poor, other times exactly what the company hoped to achieve… and sometimes online experiences exceed expectations. Successful companies build their brands by focusing on a positive user experience — combining the best of user interaction and customer service to provide value throughout the relationship. It isn't surprising at all, in fact, that brands that once had popularity decades ago (ESPRIT, Looney Tunes, Atari, and Puma, for example) have rebuilt their mindshare and returned with new popularity, in part based on rebuilding a positive user experience online. Likewise, the best websites have a look, feel, and tools that are consistent with that company's product and service experiences in other media. One of the best examples of this is the Apple website. The tight integration between the website, Apple's retail stores, phone-based customersupport, and the products themselves provides a consistent — and consistently comfortable, focused, and wonderful — experience that builds a corresponding relationship.

The history of branding has always been in this emotional space between product/service and audience/customer. And branding will need to address this space even more in the future. Online and off, brands are undoubtedly emotional at some level, but brand professionals will probably need to be as dispassionate as possible in making decisions regarding brands in order not to break this illusion of shared “ownership” that their trusting audience feels.

The future of branding for site redesigns will be defined by tools to measure and better understand emotions and will be tied to ever more meticulous measures of emotional feedback, instead of merely profits and losses or statistics based on sales.

Nathan Shedroff (www.nathan.com) is a pioneer in Experience Design, an educator, an entrepreneur, and the author of Experience Design 1 (www.experiencedesignbooks.com). In addition to speaking and teaching internationally, he is the chair of the AIGA Center for Brand Experience. He is currently developing design books and tools to help designers develop more successful experiences.

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