How well do you know your customers?

There are many demographic factors that affect website design choices. The age of your users, for example, can be a factor in content decisions, colors choices, and even details such as the size of type.

Many other factors influence how people view your site, including traditional demographic factors such as race or gender, and factors unique to the web, such as the speed of their Internet connection. Each of these influence how many visitors will stay and use your site, and how many will leave.

Demographics and site abandonment

Research into tolerance of slow web pages has identified several demographic factors that affect how long people are willing to wait to view pages. The Software Usability Research Laboratory (SURL) at Wichita State reports several ways that age affects users tolerance for slow sites: * Older users are more tolerant of slow sites. * Older users are much less likely to abandon a site because of slowness.

According to SURL's Paula Selvidge: "Older adults will wait longer for downloads and are less likely to leave a site, so web designers could incorporate meaningful graphics or other media in the place of text to enhance the usability of the site for this population."

The study also looked at other factors affecting tolerance for delays online. It found that people with slow connections were much more tolerant of slow pages than users of high-speed connections. Users with high-speed connections are used to pages loading quickly, so they are more likely to leave a slow website.

The report raises an important issue for site designers. According to Selvidge, "The findings stress the importance of designing for the targeted end-user to maximize performance and end-user satisfaction."

Face value

The importance of knowing your users is especially important when considering "rules" or guidelines for web sites. For example, many companies use images of people on their websites to build trust and to make the site more personal. In fact, some research has shown that putting a photo of a company employee on your site is an effective way to build trust.

While the idea that people trust a friendly face may seem a valid reason to incorporate these types of photos in a site design, adding photos may go against the preferences of your intended users. Casual browsers (non-shoppers) have the most positive reactions to these types of images. On the other hand, shoppers prefer a streamlined interface that speeds them through their transaction.

This shows that, even with simple guidelines, your choices in building a web site need to be influenced by the needs of your users, and even subgroups of users.

Images that are designed to build trust or image may be more effective for new visitors to your site. The images can make them comfortable doing business with you, or reinforce your brand. However, the same images within a secured page or a web application may be an annoyance.

Your Preferences Vs. Your Customers'

Another challenge of designing for your customers is the fact that your own preferences and interests tend to bias your decisions. This is an especially important factor when the needs and interests of your users differ from your own.

Because of this, it's important to get as much input from representative users. There are many ways to gather data directly from your users:

* Usability tests * Observation and informal dialog * Surveys * Interviews * Focus Groups * Brainstorming * Task analysis

Each of these techniques can be used to help identify the needs and interests of your users. It's important to remember, though, that the validity of any of these tests depends largely on how well your test group represents actual users.

When doing broad site testing, it's also important to consider the needs of various groups of people that visit your site. Casual browsers may have different needs than long-time customers. Depending on your products or services, there may be several distinct groups within your long-time customers.

Each of these types of customers will tend to use different areas of your site, so you may want to target major sections of your site to the people most likely to use that section. This may result in less consistency across your site, but at least you'll have a site that's more consistently appealing to your users.

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