Know Your Customer: User Experience, Digital Proficiency and Target Audiences


Preface: This was one of the most difficult articles I’ve written – which is hilarious to me, as user experience (UX) was my top class when I did my web design degree.  But here’s the thing: UX means a lot of different things to different people, and its definition can be rather broad and encompass many aspects that are out of reach to small businesses.  The way UX is approached depends on who wants the research: If it’s a large company, they’ll likely have a UX team.  If it’s a small business, its incorporation into the website design is more of a concept than actual research.  Here, we’ll explore the latter – because small businesses are often our focus.

I used to be one of those people who said, “Why call it user experience when it’s basically common sense?”

Because at the time, before I knew what I know now, that’s how I saw it – of course it makes sense to design websites, products, clothing and endless other products in way that is appealing to your target audience. I mean, duhhhhh.

But here’s what I didn’t realise at the time – designing a solid “user journey” (definition below if it’s a new one to you) is not “common sense” to everyone – nor can common sense be the only thing relied upon when thinking about your website’s UX. User experience is something that, in a lot of ways, we take for granted. If you’ve ever had to navigate a website that was designed without user experience in mind, or even one that was, but with someone who didn’t understand their target audience – you’ll know exactly what I mean.

So let’s take a little trip together into the wonderful world of user experience – what it is, what it encompasses, why it’s important and how you can make sure your business/brand website takes it into account – even if you don’t have the budget for formal UX research.

What’s a User Journey?

Before we go any further, we need to go to heart of user experience: the user journey. MailChimp, much to my amusement, gave a definition I really liked. It is: “A ‘user’ or ‘customer journey’, sometimes visualised as a ‘journey map,’ is the path a person follows as they discover a product, service, or brand, learn about it, consider spending money on it, and then make a decision to purchase—or not.” (MailChimp)

The web experiences we dread

Star Mountain DesignOne website I always cringe at having to use (but I do have to use it a lot) is the British Airways website. Yes, I said it… I’m sorry BA. Now, as an airline, I absolutely love British Airways. Having lived in the UK for many years now, they’re my preferred carrier for the trip from England back to New York, where I’m from.  Their service is consistent and pleasant.  I’ve also had to return to England after three shoulder surgeries back in the US, and they could not have been more accomodating when I needed assistance.

However, their website is… well, a nightmare. It’s complicated on many levels – user journeys that are not straightforward, a design that isn’t consistent (parts of the website have been redesigned and parts of it are from a bygone era, internetically-speaking), and quite frustratingly, it delivers constant time-outs from the most basic of searches. That’s just to name a few of the many issues with their website.

For me, it’s fine. I know that using their website will require patience and a stiff drink sitting next to me to take the edge off while I pull my hair out.  But I do wonder – who the hell did BA hire to do user journey research on this site?  I mean, I’m a website designer and I myself have so many WTF moments while operating their site – I wonder how people who are less digitally proficient manage.  Let’s face facts – BA has a wide target audience. People of all ages fly on airplanes and the travel industry is increasingly becoming more digital.

People like my parents back in New York, for example, who are Baby Boomers – and now senior citizens like most of their generation.  Let’s say they want to visit. They collect loads of Avios with the British Airways credit card, as well as companion vouchers. But if you’ve ever tried to make a booking using points or a companion ticket with British Airways, you’ll know the process is not for the faint of heart.

In fact, my parents, who I would say are average, maybe slightly above average for their generation when it comes to digital proficiency – don’t even attempt the British Airways site. I couldn’t do that to them – I actually think it could qualify as elder abuse. Whenever they need to make bookings that involve a flight or hotel using Avios, I do it for them.

If you’re a business, big or small, and you haven’t designed your website in a way that is usable for people whose digital proficiency spans many levels – you’re not thinking about user experience.

So what actually is digital proficiency?

Glad you asked. When used in reference to people, it’s the ability of a person to use technology in order to complete a task.

User experience (UX) versus user interface (UI), since you’re probably going to ask that too.

user experienceThese terms tend to be used interchangeably, but they actually are different. User Experience (UX) refers to the overall experience the end-user has using the complete product (which will naturally encompass parts of UI) while User Interface (UI) refers to the interaction the user has with the product’s visual components, such as buttons, navigation, forms, etc.

Who is your target audience?

Who are you trying to reach?  What is the demographic of those people? As a web designer for small businesses, I would argue the point that your website design should have a “user journey” that puts a decent-sized focus on your least digitally proficient user, especially if they’re a large part of your target audience. I have said this to younger designers and developers and I’m usually met with an “Ok Boomer” that I’m quite used to (I’m a tail-end Generation X/ Xennial, for the record).

But remember, age alone doesn’t define what someone’s abilities are for using your bog standard website. You may have people who need aids to navigate a website (ie a screenreader) and those who are sensitive to flashing pop-ups and the like.

But that is a more a question of accessibility – a topic we’ll cover in a future article, because it’s really important and deserves its own space.

For the sake of this article, we will refer to the generations in the birth year manner they are most commonly defined:

Silent Generation (1928-1945)
Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
Generation X (1965-1980)
Millennial (1981-1996)
Generation Z (1997-2012)
Generation Alpha (2013 to present)

Since our younger Millennial through to Generation Alphas were born in the internet age, I am not going to focus on them too much for this article.  The internet to them is what a cassette tape is to a Gen X.  It’s always been part of their lives.

Hypothetical: The Assisted Living Residence website

Let’s say you’re looking at assisted living for yourself, or more likely, one or both of your parents. This would mean you’re likely in the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers or even the elder end of Generation X. You can guarantee two things with these three generations:

– Their childhood did not have the internet (the youngest Generation Xers were teenagers when the internet became mainstream)

– The majority are wearing reading glasses

Why did I pick those two really random points? Because these generations became internet users in their adult years. They were not born into it. For end-range younger Millennials, Generation Z and Generation Alpha, they were born in the Internet age. They’ve never known life to be any different.

And why did I make the point about reading glasses? Again, it’s a “know your audience” point worth making. If you’re using tiny heading and body text on your site, wacky fonts or colours that are low contrast – you’re making it really effing hard for your users to use your site, even with glasses.

sub-sub navigation menuAlso, if you’re creating a website where the most important information is more than one click away, you’re making it more difficult for this subset of users. Likewise, there is really no need for sub-sub navigation menus. It’s not easy on arthritic or shaky hands; I struggle with them and I don’t even have that issue (yet).

Lastly – popups. I realise a certain amount are necessary. But if you’ve got a cookie banner popping up a few seconds after page load, and then a “free shipping” popup taking over your screen 2 seconds after when you’re just starting to navigate the site – you are literally making someone’s head explode.

Learning User Experience from watching users

I often make a joke to our clients that are over 35 (which most of ours are) that I like to consider whether or not my parents could use the sites I build. It may seem crazy, but I really do. I sit there thinking about the site I’m building and wondering if Ma and Pa Sternberg could navigate it or would they be calling “Tech Support” (better known as me or my brother) for help.

If you’ve spent enough time watching your parents (or grandparents) navigate websites, you can learn a lot from their thought processes when they surf the web. Buttons that are too small or not clearly defined, popups, and sub-sub navigation menus would be the things I say stump my own parents the most. I know for a fact they are not alone.

Now I could get super technical and tell you how research is done with UX and all the nitty gritty that goes into huge companies exploring the user experience of their websites. But that’s not for you, the small/medium business website owner, to worry about.

So why I am telling you about User Experience at all?

Because chances are, if you’re reading this article from us, you’re a small business owner or a solopreneur who does not have the capital for additional UX research for your business website.

However, you can be thinking about the experience of your users when you work with your web designer, because some of it really is common sense (there, I said it).

We have worked with clients over the years who refuse to listen to us when we say that their colour palette is low-contrast or the fonts they love are really difficult to read, and it may alienate their audience or cause users to leave their site.

As always, I will say to them – who is using your website? You or your potential customers?

Because at the end of the day, and I know I have said this in previous articles, your website is most certainly a reflection of you and your business, but it also has to show great consideration for the people who will navigate it. Even if you have strict branding guidelines, there is nothing a seasoned designer can’t work around to create a better experience for your users. And – a better experience is more likely to lead to a transaction.  Isn’t that the goal here?

What we’ve learned since the birth of the internet

Space Jam websiteThere are websites from the 1990s that are still living on the web. To look at them now, and appreciate the nostalgia of a simpler time on the interwebs is a nice moment to have. But to look back also means to reflect, and you can see how much web design has changed in nearly 30 years and how much more focus there is on usability of websites today.

The web industry’s favourite example is none other than the Space Jam website which is still living in 1996. Kudos to whoever keeps this bad boy in all its original ’90s glory.

1996 Space Jam websiteAs you can see by looking at this website, readability and contrast are not even considered. Red text on a black starry background? Shocking! Images with text on them as links? Obscene! A site that doesn’t read easily a mobile phone? Call the authorities!  Do you know where to click to find the information you’re looking for?  Probably not…

We’ve learned a lot since we started travelling the Information Superhighway (gosh, I miss that term!).  Nostalgia is great, but progress is better.

Incorporating UX on a budget

So now that I’ve shown you the ghost of Web Design Past, I don’t want you to panic about UX- you don’t need a big business budget to prioritise user experience.  What you do need, however, is to hire a web design agency with web designers who at least have knowledge of UX and its importance, even if their job title is not “UX Designer.”  That means finding web designers who have done the time and coursework (be it in a university or bootcamp) that will undoubtedly include a module or two in UX design.  These designers will understand how important it is for your customers to have a positive experience using your website.

It should be noted that the cheapest option for a website build is not usually the most comprehensive. As I’ve said before – and until I’m blue in the face – there is a shifty underbelly of the web world; agencies pretending to be something they’re not.  And believe me, in organisations like this – no matter what their marketing says, are companies outsourcing developers in poor countries and paying them peanuts.  They sure as hell don’t care about your customers’ experiences using the components they build for you.

How to do UX research on your website without having a budget for it

1) Ask your current customers (or if you are a new business, ask friends you trust) to use your site and give honest, solid feedback on their experiences navigating your website.  The best people to ask are those whose demographics mostly reflect those of who your target audience will be.  Ask them to perform tasks (for example, send a message through the contact form or locate a particular product).

While it’s handy to be able to do this when your website is a mockup or prototype, this isn’t always an option if you need to get online quickly and you just need the site built.  That’s okay though, because if you have the right web designer (mentioned above), the user experience component will have already been considered and hopefully the feedback will mean little more than adjustment of font sizes, colours or buttons.

2) Watch someone less digitally proficient than yourself use your website (or any website, if yours isn’t built yet).  Ask them to use a website you know well.  The reason I say this is because you know which tasks to ask them to perform, and you can also see the contrast between something you think it easy and something other people may not find easy – nothing shows a gap in ability like this does.

3) If your website is already built but you’re open to changes, look at your website analytics and traffic – see who is visiting your website most often and how they are accessing it – mobile, desktop or tablet.  Look at your bounce rate (the number of users who “peace out” from your site), and try to see how long they are spending on various pages – and which ones are falling flat. From there, speak with your web designer about changes that will cater to demographic and device.

user experience4) If your website isn’t built yet, take out a piece of paper – no joke – and map out what you want the user journey to be. I’m not being funny here – from the first click to the last (which is hopefully a contact form submission or a transaction) figure out what you want this to look like.

An end point

It may seem like I’ve said a lot here, but in actuality I’ve not even put a dent in all there is to know about user experience.  Hopefully what I have said, however, resonates on some level – a basic enough level for you to understand how you can be thinking about UX, target audiences and digital proficiency when you’re going through the process of obtaining a website for your business or brand.  I would challenge you to do this: go to your favorite websites.  Go to some new websites too.  Think about your interactions with them.  Think about what would make their websites easier to use.  Think about the things you like about these websites.  This is all a lesson in user experience, and it’s a firsthand lesson too – often the best kind.

In a funny aside, I asked my partner if there’s a website he hates using because it’s just such a clusterf*ck and without missing a beat he said, “British Airways.” I cannot recall us having this conversation before, and yet his response was the same as mine – so hear me out: you can be a big business like BA and get it wrong, even with fancy UX teams.  You can also be a small business, who gets it right, without doing any of the paid research. Because at the end of the day… sometimes it really does come down to common sense and basic principles.