Publishers of technology books, eBooks, and videos for creative people

Home > Articles > Web Design & Development > Usability

  • Print
  • + Share This
This chapter is from the book

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."

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.


none 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.audiencesunderstandingusersCore Processdefine projectdiscovery,discoverygathering informationaudience understanding,projectsdefinitionaudience understanding,

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].


none 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.

Understanding Audience Capabilities

It comes down to this question: Who is the client willing to leave behind? Some sites such as 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].


none 3.3 High bandwidth: www. 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 [3.4].


none 3.4 Low bandwidth: 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, 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.


none 3.5 Aiming to satisfy both high and low is usually achieved by making concessions to each. (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 800x600 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 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.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account