Implementing BS 8878 step 3: user research to find the size and needs of your web product’s audiences

What do you know about your website’s target audiences? How they use the web. What they might want from your site. What do you really know? Are they like you or very different?

And isn’t it a good idea to spend some time and effort working that out before you start creating something for them? Because if you don’t understand the users you are creating the site for, even if you create a usable site, it may not be one they actually want.

Your website may be a solution to a problem they don’t have. Or it may be a solution to a problem they do have but that doesn’t fit into their lifestyle. And you really don’t want to find that out when you user-test the site two weeks from launch, when it’s too late and costly to do much about it.

That’s why step three of the BS 8878 production process advises you to do some user research early, to find out more about your audiences. It’s about making sure you don’t base decisions about your website on assumptions about your audiences that may not be true. It’s about letting your audiences help you decide what the site should be, so when you user-test it later it really connects with them, delights them, and keeps them coming back for more.

User research: what you need to know to delight your audiences

If you’ve been following the BS 8878 process, you’ll already have decided who your primary and secondary audiences are, so now it’s time to look at what they are going to need from your product.

It’s useful to break this down into three aspects:

  1. how many people are we talking about in each target audience, and do the audiences have sub-groups within it (for instance people with different types of disability)?
  2. what are each audience’s general needs from the user experience of any website, and are there sub-groups in the audience who have different needs from each other?
  3. what are their specific needs from your website?

Number of people in your potential target audience

Finding the best research you can on how many people are in your primary and secondary audiences is essential. If you don’t know this:

  • how do you know whether or not the audience is big enough to warrant the time and money you’d need to invest to create a site for them?
  • how do you know how much of your total potential audience your site is appealing to when you review your site use statistics after launch?

Here’s an example from my time at the BBC. BBC iPlayer is pretty much the most successful website the BBC have ever produced. Its purpose is to enable online audiences to catch-up on TV and radio programmes they may have missed. This makes the primary audience for the service pretty much everyone in the UK who is online, as almost everyone watches BBC TV, and few people never miss a show they wanted to catch.

As 77 percent of households are now online the BBC’s large investment in iPlayer makes very good sense. And the result is their impressive monthly performance pack figures: 153 million TV and radio programmes were watched and listened to in September 2011; and their unique users are in advance of 6.3 million users. However, if we take into account their huge potential target audience of around 48 million people, those figures don’t look quite so good. Their audience figures could potentially be much higher if they found new ways of enabling people who don’t use iPlayer to find about it and get a great user experience from it. And I know they are constantly working on that because the potential prize is worth a lot of investment.

So you’re not the BBC and you’re unlikely to have a site which everyone wants to use. But the same principles apply – find out as much as you can about the potential size of your audience, and use that to let you know how much to invest in your site, and to monitor how well you are doing compared to how well you could be doing. If you are reaching 10% of your potential audience you’ve got lots of work to do. If you’re reaching 90% you can relax while making sure no competitor is just about to steal your audience.

Finding the best stats

While there are many sources of statistics available on general use of the Internet, the cheapest and easiest way of getting a flavour for the potential audience size for your website is to use Google Adwords’ Keyword Tool to see if anyone is searching for what your website aims to deliver – its purpose. This also tells you which words they are using for their searches so you can put those words in your site’s titles and headings to attract the audience to your site. More information on this is available in any number of Search Engine Optimisation blogs.

What proportion of your potential target audience may be disabled?

But what about disabled audiences? How much of your potential target audience might these sub-groups make up?

As I touched on in my last blog, it makes perfect sense to look further into how many people with different types of disability or who are elderly will be likely to use your site.

If these numbers are high, it makes sense to do a lot to try and make sure these audiences (like all your others) get hooked on your site’s user experience.

If these numbers are low, the benefit you could gain from spending time and money trying to appeal to these audiences may not give you a good return on your investment, unless that investment is low (which thankfully can often be the case).

So how do you find these figures? Unfortunately, this is something that’s difficult to do accurately – no web analytics system can tell you how many disabled people are using your site, in the same way that it can’t tell you how many male or female users you have.

So all you have to go on is the best figures you can find of the population of people with various types of disability, and the best figures you can find of how many of those people in general are using the Internet.

These are the best figures I’ve found:

That’s a useful start – would you really want to exclude 18% of your potential users from being able to become your users?

So how does this 11 million break down into different groups of disabled people with different needs? Different organisations will quote you different numbers (I use a combination of these with the Disability Prevalence estimates 2009/10 from the ODI) but these are a reasonable approximation:

  • about 7 million people have a physical impairment, of which 2.6 million have difficulties using their hands which impact their use of computer keyboards and mice
  • 2.2 million people have difficulty with memory, concentration or learning, of which about 1 million have a learning difficulty
  • 2.1 million people have some form of communication difficulty
  • almost 2 million people have a hearing impairment, of which 50,000 use British Sign Language to communicate
  • approx. 2 million people are dyslexic
  • 1.8 million people have a vision impairment, of which 180,000 are registered blind
  • over 1 million people have a progressive, cyclical or fluctuating condition such as multiple sclerosis
  • over 1 million have a mental health condition, most of which are unlikely to affect their use of the Internet

The relative size of each audience may be a real surprise to you – most people’s assumption is that accessibility is just about blind people, but they only make up 1.6% of that population of 11 million.

While it is true that making your website work well for blind people also tends to help other disabled too, this isn’t always the case. To give one example: making your site work well for blind people will do very little to help the 4-5 million people who can see your site but need the colours changed for comfortable reading because they are dyslexic or have lower-level vision impairments. I’ll come back to talking about these people’s needs later in the BS8878 process where we talk about personalisation.

Old people – the statistic that is going up, fast…

One last sub-group which you really should take into account are the aging population.

Most websites are created by young males. But most popular websites appeal to older people almost as much as those who are younger.

And, unless you die early, this is the one sub-group which you are going to end up in later in your life. So it’s best to consider ‘designing for your older self’ now.

On top of this, the statistics around the aging population are startling. The number of older people in the world is going up and up. To quote population forecasts from Japan: in 1950, 35.4% of people were aged 10 and below, compared with 4.9% of people aged 65 and above; in 2050 it is projected that there will be 8.6% of people aged 10 and below, and 39.6% aged 65 and above.

So, while you may be able to exclude older people from your website without too much loss to your statistics at the moment, year on year this decision will start to cost you more and more.

Put another way, the insights you’ll get from reading this blog will become more and more valuable as time goes on. If you start taking inclusion seriously now, your foresight could turn into a great advantage over your competitors who came late to the party.

Use of the internet – one last sobering statistic

For full disclosure, there is one last statistic which currently constrains the value of the time you put into making your products include disabled and elderly audiences: the number of them who currently use the internet.

Current statistics on disabled people’s use of the Internet (from the Minister for Disabled People, Maria Miller) find that 41% of disabled people use the Internet, compared to 75% of non-disabled people.

Bearing in mind that disabled people have as much, if not more, to benefit from the Internet, this figure is puzzling and disappointing. To understand why the figure is low, and what is being done about it, we’ll need to dig deeper into why the statistics are like this. If you’re interested in the reasons behind this, I’ll let you know some of them in part two of this blog.

Beyond statistics – deeper user-research to find out more about your audiences

Part two of this blog will concentrate on the second and third aspects of user research: qualitative research into these audiences’ needs and preferences, now we know how many people have those needs.

Expect that soon.

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What you can do now

Check out the potential audience who may be interested in your site with Google Adwords’ Keyword Tool.

Think further about whether disabled and elderly people will be equally interested (for example: a cold winter payments page on a government website should probably pay more attention to the needs of elderly people than a site promoting holidays in Ibiza) and note down the size of audience you might be excluding if you don’t cater for these sub-groups’ needs.

This ‘size of excluded audience’ is a great way of putting together a business case for work you may want to consider doing to prevent their exclusion later in the process (check out EDC’s handy exclusion calculator for a handy, visual way of working out these figures). And it’s a great addition to the documentation you’ll be building up for your site at every step in the BS 8878 process.

Once you’ve documented each of the 16 steps (sign up for my newsletter to make sure you don’t miss any), you’ll have a site whose creation has been based on sensible, reasonable decisions, and you’ll be able to claim conformance to BS 8878.

Let me know in the comment section below how you fare, and feel free to ask any other questions.

And remember, if you don’t have 16 weeks to learn about BS 8878 week by week, you can get a flavour of all the steps by visiting myBS 8878 summary slides, or get trained in BS 8878 by Hassell Inclusion.

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