It makes sense to know who your audience is: Web Design

It is important to define as accurately as possible the type of visitors who will be coming to your site
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MOST PEOPLE use the term "user" when referring to the audience for their Web site. I have never been terribly fond of this term, though, for several reasons. First, the term user connotes a negative and unhealthy relationship, as in drug user, and I really do not want to think of the people coming to my site in such a manner. Second, the term user sounds like something the marketing men came up with to describe human beings, along the same lines that produced the term "human resource" to describe workers.

Instead, I refer to the audience for my sites as visitors. Yes, it may simply be a bit of semantics, but language is a powerful tool that shapes our concepts of the people and things with which we interact. I would much rather think of myself as the host to visitors than the supplier to users.

Always remember that the visitor is the person whom you are designing for. Whether this is your own personal site or a multi-million pound Web application, the visitor - the person using your Web site - is who you should be considering at all points, from conception, to design, through implementation and finally production.

This may seem obvious, but, believe me, as you get deeper and deeper into a project, the visitor becomes an increasingly remote concept. Customers, managers and even your own biases and prejudices will cloud your vision of the people you are actually trying to create for. That is why, from the very beginning, it is important to define, as accurately as possible, the type of visitors who will be coming to your Web site and fixate on that point like a lighthouse in a foggy sea.

Of course, you will have more than one visitor to your site - or so you hope - and each visitor is an individual who has his or her own specific reasons for coming to your site. However, we can make certain assumptions about these people and why they might be visiting your site. These assumptions need to be based on facts and observations, though, to be of any meaningful value.

The type of content that is being displayed will determine the type of visitor wanting to view it. This is probably the most important factor in determining a demographic for the people visiting your site, and the more accurately you can define the content, the more accurately you can define the types of people who will be interested in viewing it. In addition, the content will also tell you a lot about the look and feel that the site's interface should take. For instance, the audience for a computer store's Web site will probably not expect to see a floral pattern in the background.

Once you have determined the general audience for your site based on content, you should try to answer the following questions based on your own experience, or even better, through your own direct observation.

What type of equipment is the visitor using and where?

As we all know, no two computers are the same, and the type of equipment being used, especially the screen size and the speed of the Internet connection, will tell you a lot about how to design a site. In addition, the location of the visitor will determine how long they are likely to stay online. If at work, it is likely that they will not worry about their phone charges nearly as much as if they were at home.

What type of browser and software is the visitor using?

While some people (myself included) like to keep the most up-to-date beta versions of every browser and plug-in available on the Web, most people will use whatever browser and plug-ins came with their computer. So before you go around throwing bleeding-edge technology into your Web site, find out how receptive your potential visitor is to that technology.

What do you hope the visitor will achieve at this site?

If this is a point-of-sales Web site, you are obviously hoping that the visitor will purchase something at your site. However, if it is a site of research materials, the goal should be to help the visitor find the information they are looking for as quickly and completely as possible. Define the visitor's goals and purpose for visiting the site as precisely as possible.

Of course, a single site might - and probably will - have many purposes. Set up different scenarios for several different potential visitors and several different possible purposes for coming to your Web site. Map out how visitors might get from their entry point to the Web site (probably the home page) to their goal or goals, and use this information to optimise the navigation for your site.

E-mail your comments or queries to Jason Cranford Teague at indy_webdesign