More Alike Than We Think

By Whitney Quesenbery

Published: March 20, 2006

“Would we be able to create one site for all enquirers, or would we have to create specialized sites to meet the needs of different user groups?”

What happens when a site has to appeal to a wide range of people? How do you sort out their different usability requirements? Will they conflict, and if so, how do you prioritize them?

Working on a new Web site to provide information about admission to The Open University (OU) in the UK, Ian Roddis, who is in charge of the OU Web strategy, issued a challenge: How can we make sure that the site will provide the right information in a format that will be useful and usable?

Earlier user research and usability tests that Caroline Jarrett and I had done had shown that users were having trouble learning about the OU’s special form of distance education on the existing site. To solve this problem, we wanted to make recommendations for the style and format of the information as part of our design.

One complicating factor is the diversity of this audience. It ranges from teens just leaving secondary school, adults considering updating their professional qualifications, people with some university experience trying to complete their degrees, to older adults—often pursuing a personal interest in a subject. It also includes people speaking English as a second language, as well as people with a wide range of disabilities who are attracted by the flexibility of study at the Open University.

Would we be able to create one site for all enquirers, or would we have to create specialized sites to meet the needs of different user groups?

Finding the Differences

We started by turning to current research reports to see what other experts had to say.

Writing for Teens

“Teens are impatient readers … To be successful with teens, sites need to not only grab their attention, but also make pages easy to scan.”

The Nielsen/Norman Group report on “Teens and the Web—and summary UseIt column—stressed that teens are impatient readers:

  • They have a “dramatically lower patience level” and will leave sites that are difficult to figure out or seem “boring.”
  • They have poor reading skills and less sophisticated research strategies, so they preferred sites that “were easy to scan or that illustrated concepts visually” to sites with dense text.
  • They don’t like small fonts—not because they are not sharp eyed, but because “they move too quickly and are too easily distracted to attend to small text.”

The report concluded that, to be successful with teens, sites need to not only grab their attention, but also make pages easy to scan.

Writing for Older Adults

“To be successful with older adults, sites should avoid burdening them with unnecessary information they will feel compelled to read, which may distract them from the tasks they were are trying to accomplish.”

An AARP review of literature on older adults on the Web, by Ginny Redish and Dana Chisnell, stressed that older adults are not a homogeneous group, but also noted some common behavior in reading on the Web:

  • They are more easily distracted by extraneous information or cluttered designs.
  • They read more than younger adults—perhaps feeling obligated to read the entire page—and are more likely to read messages, prompts, and pop-ups.
  • They are less likely to be familiar with technical Web terminology and domain-specific jargon. When they encounter terms with which they are unfamiliar, they simply skip them—often missing important information or links.
  • They can be less patient than younger users and may abandon a site or give up on an online task more quickly than younger users.
  • They are cautious clickers and spend time making each decision rather than exploring freely.

Redish and Chisnell concluded that, to be successful with older adults, sites should avoid burdening them with unnecessary information they will feel compelled to read, which may distract them from the tasks they were are trying to accomplish.

Writing for Low Literacy or Low English Proficiency

“Low-literacy readers … need to read slowly and carefully. … Linear paths help low-literacy readers move through information with a minimum of distractions.”

It might seem counterintuitive to worry about how well people with lower literacy can read a university Web site, but the OU prides itself on its open admissions policy. Its students include people with reading difficulties that have nothing to do with their intelligence or capacity to learn, and students for whom English is a second language are an important audience at the OU.

Michael Summers and Kathryn Summers’ work on designing for low-literacy readers focused on different reading habits. In their article in STC’s Intercom, “Making the Web Friendlier for Lower-Literacy Users,” and in a summary published on UseIt, they stressed such readers’ need to read slowly and carefully along with their tendency to skip information they don’t understand.

  • They read word for word more slowly than other readers, focusing exclusively on the line of text they are currently reading.
  • They don’t scan, because they can’t read quickly, so they often completely skip over large amounts of information, especially dense text, or accept as “good enough” the first answer they find.
  • They have more difficulty in wayfinding, because they can’t scan navigation options easily, and often ignore information on parts of the page outside the main content.

They concluded that linear paths help low-literacy readers move through information with a minimum of distractions.

Finding the Overlap

“Avoid long, dense blocks of text. … Impatient readers are likely to skip any “walls of words” as too much work.”

It’s hard to imagine three audiences that seem further apart than teens, older adults, and people with difficulty reading. We had feared that we would find conflicting advice. But the advice we found was remarkably consistent, even looking closely at specific, diverse audiences. The reasons were different, but the same advice served each of these users in different ways:

  • Avoid long, dense blocks of text.
  • Create informative headings.
  • Provide navigation options within the content.

Avoid Long, Dense Blocks of Text

Impatient readers are likely to skip any “walls of words” as too much work. This is not to say that they never read anything in detail, but without cues to the value of such long paragraphs, they have no reason to invest the time and effort it would take to read them.

Lower-literacy readers will often just give up, skipping over text they find too hard—or too daunting. Long paragraphs often mean complex sentences—just the kind of writing that is hardest to read for someone without good reading skills or a deep familiarity with English.

Older adults are penalized by long blocks of text, precisely because they are likely to read everything. This slows them down, so reading each page takes longer, and can take them off track if the information is not completely relevant.

Create Informative Headings

“Informative headings … allow readers to simply scan from heading to heading and still pick up the main points.”

Informative headings—headings that make a point—are not just decorative. They allow readers to simply scan from heading to heading and still pick up the main points. This helps both impatient teens and older adults.

The research with low-literacy readers suggests that they skip headings along with other text, so informative headings might not help them as much as the other groups. But, if they do read just the beginning of each chunk of text, this group will also learn the main points from well-written headings.

Provide Navigation Options Within the Content

“For impatient readers and those with poor Web skills, a good navigational choice, presented at just the right place, provides subtle wayfinding guidance.”

For careful readers—older adults and low-literacy readers—adding navigation links at the end of the content provides them with a next-step option exactly where they need it and lets them avoid hunting around the page for options. For low-literacy readers, this also lets them avoid the need for even more reading to find an appropriate menu option. For older adults, with their cautious clicking behavior, the direct connection between content and links adds relevance and makes the decision easier.

For impatient readers and those with poor Web skills, a good navigational choice, presented at just the right place, provides subtle wayfinding guidance—without eliminating other choices.

Trying it Out

Armed with all this research and our previous usability work, we wrote the content for the new site prototype and tested it. Our participants ranged from a 17-year-old automotive-trades student to someone heading into an MA in Marketing to a 58-year-old looking for career training. Their ages, familiarity with universities, socio-economic status, and prior education were all highly varied.

We saw many of the behaviors predicted in the research:

  • No one liked pages with long blocks of text. They preferred and were more successful in reading pages with information broken up into short chunks, each paragraph making a clear point.
  • They liked pages and menus that clearly stated what questions would be answered. Putting these questions in their own language worked even better. For example, they wanted to know what a course at the OU would cost. A link that echoed their words, saying “What will it cost?” worked better than one that said “Paying for your studies.”
  • They were quick to leave a page that did not seem promising—though the older adults tended to persevere for longer. They wanted pages that answered questions, clearly and directly, not pages that gave them information to sift through.
“They were quick to leave a page that did not seem promising—though the older adults tended to persevere for longer.”

These results were the same across the board. No one turned to us and said that they were finding these pages too easy to read or too simplistic. They were more likely to follow links to additional information if they had already found part of the answer. If the paragraph preceding a link was not helpful, they seemed to have little confidence that a related link would do any better.

When they did follow links into the main site—for example, to read the requirements for a subject or program that interested them—they were more successful there, because they had the context they needed to make sense of the detailed information.

The best result for our business goals was that the new prototype succeeded in accurately communicating answers to people’s top questions about the university. Where previous sites had failed even to help readers understand the basic fact that the OU is a distance-learning institution, these participants were able to correctly explain not only how the OU works, but identify features of the program that were particularly appealing to them.

Are We More Alike Than We Think?

“Instead of forcing visitors to select the right version for their needs, we offered information that was useful and usable to all visitors.”

It might be easy to claim that each different audience needs its own separate user interface—whether we are talking about interfaces for novice versus advanced users, different cultures, or people with differing needs for accessibility—but the danger in this approach is a proliferation of different, specialized versions, adding complexity both to the design process and to readers’ process of finding the right version for them.

Our experience in creating and testing the prototype for the Open University suggests that a more universal approach can work even better. (For an overview of the principles of universal usability, see my UXmatters column, “Why People Matter.”) Instead of forcing visitors to select the right version for their needs, we offered information that was useful and usable to all visitors. Rather than creating a design that satisfied a lowest common denominator and a mediocre user experience for all, our universal design helped everyone take the first step in learning about the OU and deciding what to explore next.

I’d like to hear your experiences in designing for diverse audiences? Have you found the differences or similarities more important? Are there design principles or guidelines that have helped you bridge the gaps?

We expect the Open University site to launch in early summer and will post a link to the site here when it does.

6 Comments

Super read! I have often wondered that, independant of background, people are task focused and crave simplicity.

Thank you very much! I liked the article very much. How often do i hear: “Your rules for Web writing are nice, but my audience is so special, I have to write specially.” Your article confirms to me that there are some basic rules in Web writing that apply for everybody.

The article is quite revelatory and thought provoking. I am a Web writer, and I must say that such good articles will definitely do a world of good to those who make a living by harnessing the power of the Web.

If you’d like to visit the Web site described in this article, it’s now online at http://www.open.ac.uk/new/.

Excellent, clear thinking on a topic that often gets muddled. While it sounds attractive, tailoring for different audiences ultimately forces users to accept a categorization that must usually seem simplistic. You make a strong case for doing a better job of organizing content instead.

That is a really nice abstract. Use of easy language is always a good choice, because of restraints on time budgets. The easier to read, the more likely to be read. Or the more can be read in a given time.

There is more to text and structuring than most people guess. In my experience, using headers and subheaders also for several parts of a page is one of the keys to help users.

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