Test your audience in the flesh

Working the web all day makes you exceedingly web savvy to the various different advertising systems, affiliate links and technologies used. The majority of webmasters are ad blind to varying extents and many have conditioned their way of browsing to never click an advert intentionally (I must admit if an ad interests me on any site I’ll key the URL into the address bar, which probably makes me the webmasters visitor from hell).

So say you’re designing a site to be used by general Joe Public (the largest sector of people that use the Internet by far), who do you reckon the best person is to advice on the design, Mr Web “I know it all” Master or your cousin that knows how to use the Internet but has no idea how it works but does have a keen interest in what your new site is all about. From a usability point of view I know who I’d ask first, Mr Webmaster might be able to advice on the layout and look but if you want to make the site useful by the actual users then asking them is the way to go.

Another thing I find a useful exercise is to watch how people browse the web. When my daughter was 7 I remember asking her to visit a particular site and gave her the URL. Instead of typing it into the address bar as I was expecting, she went straight to Google and typed the URL in the search box, I’m not sure what this tells me but I sure was surprised. I currently live in a small village and down the local pub if I ever talk about Adsense or affiliate marketing I get a lot of blank gormless stares, yet the majority of the people I drink with all have computers at home, buy stuff of the web and know a useful site when they see one. So chatting to them about how they use the web and what they want from it is a really useful way of brainstorming without them even knowing it. You can get some great ideas from non web savvy people as they’ll think of things in a totally different way to the typical web-head.

I’ve just had a look at the ever accurate traffic comparison tool Alexa (joke) to see what the reach was for Digg, the somewhat popular techie site. The 3 month average was 0.72%, which means 99.28% of the Internet population don’t look at Digg on a daily basis. The stat is obviously not 100% accurate (it is Alexa after all) but if anything it is probably skewed in Digg’s favor due to the type of audience it gets. Digg does get a phenomenel amount of traffic but when you consider the amount of non tech traffic in comparison the Digg traffic is tiny (I never thought I’d say that).

So the next time you’re out with your non nerdy techie mates, use the opportunity to get advice from the real users of the Internet.

About Al Carlton

Al quit the 9 to 5 rat race in January of 2007, before then he was a software engineer and systems architect of financial system. Nowadays Al spends the days running his various businesses and experimenting with different ideas and opportunities.
Al can be found on twitter at AlCarlton.


  1. Very good point, Al.

    I realise that I usually only depend on my own (skewed) opinions. And I also know that I am not a typical web user. So I guess my online offerings aren’t truly user-friendly.

    I would love to get feedback from “normal” people. But I also know that I will find it hard to take such advice, because of my own ideas and desire to do things “the right way” (meaning MY way).

    I guess I will just have to learn that I’m not always right.

    I would like to ask you if you’d mind revealing some of the web shattering insights you have gained speaking to non-webmasters down at the local?

    • Being able to take advice is a great skill to have and knowing what advice to ignore it probably a better one :).

      The most shattering insight to me is that most (all) of them didn’t know what Adsense was or that they were actually adverts to other sites. The people I was chatting to weren’t total village idiots, they had normal jobs like bankers, secretaries, builders etc.

      I also had it confirmed that porn is the most searched for think by blokes though that was closely followed by mp3 and movie rips.

  2. I find a good way to track how a web user (not a web master) uses a site is to visit them and if they want you to work on something on the PC, have them do the work on the PC and just give hints here and there. This way you see how someone generally uses the internet and what they actually do.

    For example my mum looks up a lot of craft stuff. She asked if I could help find something, so I asked her to do what she normally does and I would follow along. I found that she tends to click more banners and adsense then actual links with in the content to move to another page on the same site. It could take her several jumps to seven websites to find the content she is looking for and has probably made 6 of those websites a few cents in the process.

  3. Woohoo, right everyone, of to the pub, Al said it’s good for research! 🙂

    It is soo true that we get used to easily navigating and using websites we have never been to before almost acting on instinct now and forget that ‘most’ users do not act and think the way we do.

  4. tecwzrd says:

    I somewhat agree with getting advice from “Joe Public” but any webmaster worth their salt would already factor in usability analysis to any design.

    Reviewing your stats on pages viewed and for how long also go a long way into knowing what works and doesn’t work and what needs changing.

    Using “Joe Public” is best for your targeted audience but IMO most of “Joe Public” will have basic skills in navigating a site as long as it has a basic structure and more importantly a quality search feature.

    I’m not surprised at all about the naivety of most people to how ads work since they themselves have little to do with interacting with the process other then clicking them.

  5. I certainly agree that it is essential to consider your site’s audience when designing and maintaining a website. Different people expect different things, and this should never be forgotten.

    – Martin Reed

  6. This is something easier said than adhered to. The computer software industry knows the value of seeing how real users use products, but lots of products are released with hard to use features.

    There’s always that tendency to think, “I’m the expert, I know best”.

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