Web Site Design: Who Is Your Audience?

One of the first things that you need to decide, long before you begin your analysis, design and implementation, is who is your audience? With whom are you trying to communicate? You are obviously creating a web site for a reason, and hopefully you intended someone to view it. In fact, you should define your audience before you even get into any details about what the web site is to do - the "to do" will actually be made much more clear once you understand your audience.

There is the odd circumstance of someone creating a web site just for himself, but this is a very rare exception. Usually there is some intention for someone else to view the material, read the articles or listen to the sounds.

So who is this group of people who you except to visit your web site? This is a far more important question that it appears on the surface, as it will define and guide you through just about every remaining phase of your web site implementation. The question of "who" will determine how you write, which graphics and sounds you include, what kind of HTML tags you use and what other technologies are needed.

It is critical to understand that you cannot communicate to everyone. For example, a web site that is aimed at five year olds will probably not be very useful to computer professionals (except, possibly, as an example of how to do it).

So sit back and think for a minute. It does not matter what kind of site you envision - you can determine your audience. Start with the subject material. Let's say you are creating a website about model railroads. That's your subject, model railroads. This is very general, but it will do for now.

Okay, now, are you communicating with beginners? experienced railroaders? or are you attempting to explain the subject to someone who does not know anything about it? Perhaps you want to communicate with all of these groups - but are you also interested in writing to the critic of the hobby?

Let's take an intranet that I worked on a number of years ago. This was intended to explain how my staff was to perform their various system management procedures. It would include step-by-step instructions for each of the tasks that they performed on a day-to-day basis.

So who is my audience? My own staff members. Let's define them a little further. They are highly technical, well trained and know how to do their own jobs. By defining just this much, the nature of what needs to be written becomes more clear. Extreme detail is not necessary, for example. In addition, by knowing that they are, say, trained in Windows NT, I can specify that Windows NT commands do not need to be explained. It can be assumed, because I know my audience, that they know this information.

Another intranet which I have helped design is intended for use by store managers. By simple defining that information, I can determine exactly what information is needed by this group of people. I can also infer what data they do not need to have explain in detail - because they already know it. I can also expand the audience by saying "store captains and their direct reports". Now I might have to include more information, as the direct reports may need additional explanation.

If possible, it is a great idea to interview or survey some of your intended audience. I have done this on several occasions, and it has prevented many errors which may otherwise have crept into the final product. Remember your end user may not be the person who is paying for the project - it is the people with whom you are trying to communicate.

Things to note as you are defining your audience:

- education - are you aiming for an audience of college graduates or school children or something in between. This is necessary to determine how you write your articles.

- technical training - what kind of training and technical knowledge do you expect your end users to have. By knowing this information, you can make assumptions about their abilities.

- medical conditions - does your intended audience have any medical conditions that you need to account for? For example, if you are writing to the blind, you may need to do extra work to be sure they can hear your site addition to (or instead of) being able to see it.

- graphical orientation - is your audience better communicated with using graphics, text, sound, movies or a combination of the above? By knowing who they are, you can tailor your presentation towards them. For example, if I made a site tailored for my boss, I might include flowcharts, spreadsheets and diagrams. For my technical people, text descriptions might be more than adequate.

Once you know your audience, other things become obvious. For example, a common question is whether to code a site for just one browser or all browsers. When I created an intranet, we coded strictly for Internet Explorer V5 since everyone in the company used that browser. By knowing our audience we could define this early in the project. The same holds true for things like screen resolution, graphics formats (jpg, gif and png), load times (the intranet had a network so it was fast) and so on.

You audience also determines what kind of content you will include on your site. Thus, if your site is intended to be read by advanced webmasters, you probably don't want to include articles on how to load you site onto a free host. They should already have this information.

As you can see, by understanding your audience, you can answer many of the questions that come up during web site design. In fact, this understanding often makes the decisions become non-issues - they are obvious.

Reference: Richard Lowe,

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