Build a Website: Designing for Different Audiences
The best planned and designed website may look significantly different when viewed on computers running different operating systems with different web browsers. There's a few reason why this happens. First of all, people access the Web with a wide variety of computer systems and monitors; many people also browse the Web with mobile devices like smartphones. Second, all web browsers are not the same and don't support the same features. The design challenge is to address these differences.Define Your Audience
Before designing a website, ask yourself this key question: who is your target audience? Do you want the site to be accessed by as many people as possible, or are you targeting a select group? For instance, without a high-speed Internet connection, downloading a graphics-intensive or media-rich web page will be painfully slow. For people with a 56 Kbps modem, it can be a frustrating experience; many of them will bail out quickly. On the other hand, if you are targeting services to Fortune 500 companies, it's reasonable to expect that they will have broadband connections. That means you can incorporate rich graphics and multimedia content into your site.
If you want to appeal to the widest possible audience however, your web pages should contain small graphic files and avoid the use of advanced features that are not universally supported. Keep in mind that you are designing in time as well as space, so take your users' hardware into consideration. Right now, most people worldwide still access the Web with a dial-up connection. although this is rapidly changing. Ideally, file sizes should be small enough to download in 15 seconds or less. [Studies indicate that 8 seconds is the optimum time.] The easiest solution is to keep your site simple and avoid tempting "enhancements." A good example is Google, which is enormously popular despite its basic design.Provide Viewing Options
If you must make extensive use of images or you're absolutely determined to take advantage of features such as Flash, do a few things to accommodate, rather than frustrate viewers.
- Create separate versions of your pages tailored to different browsers. The browsers most commonly used are Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari. Note that there are different releases and versions (Windows and Mac) of each one.
- Develop parallel sites--a simple one that doesn't use the "enhancements" and one that has all the bells and whistles.
The best way to accomplish any of these goals is to direct the user to the alternative versions with a link at the top of your home page. Keep in mind, however, that developing different versions is time-consuming and expensive. Maintaining them can be cumbersome.
Another solution is to use a CGI script that evaluates the type of browser that is requesting a particular HTML file and builds an appropriate version of that file on the fly. While this option is complex and costly to implement, it's more efficient and much easier to maintain.
Test your page design in a variety of browsers. This will give you a good idea of how different people will see it. If you typically use a broadband connection, try accessing your site with a dial-up connection or view it on a smartphone screen. If you're frustrated by the experience, imagine how others will feel.
Last update: Jan 13, 2010