Different age groups use the web in different ways. Understanding who your users are, their needs and the way they interact with the web are all factors that should play a role in designing an effective site. David Bicknell reports
Designing compelling websites for different generations on the Internet requires much more thought than simply considering page furniture and font size.
Creating the right design for the various ages using the web requires a fundamental understanding of who those generations are, what their motivations are, how much time they spend online, how comfortable they are with the web, and how driven, or not, they are by price.
For each of those generations, whether 16-24, 25-34, 35-54, or 55+, effective design depends on a brand’s values, and how that brand appeals to the audience.
So as a starting point, brands have to decide what their product is, what is it they’re trying to sell and then make sure that it is relevant to the customer.
Then there are accessibility issues to consider, requiring an understanding of the audience, their social mores, their free time, the way they interact with technology, the communities they operate in, even their eyesight. All of these aspects impact the role design plays in targeting different generations.
Celia Pronto, marketing director of STA Travel, insists that in targeting the youngest generation, STA has to recognise in its design thinking that the target market is students and young people wanting long-haul flights, perhaps for their gap year.
“We are associated with independent travellers, and though our typical market is 18-26, we did have someone in their 80s recreating a trip to India they made 40 years ago,” she says.
“In designing your business and brand, you have to research the validity of what your target market is looking to do, and then you need to understand their decision-making process and where they are getting their information from today.
“For students, their gap year is important, and the thinking behind organising it is different to booking a weekend in Paris.
“And what you also have to consider design-wise is that your brand may not simply be dependent on your website.
“What we’ve had to do is understand the role of the web in the STA Travel business model because the website is not our only channel. We also have a call-centre and more than 50 high-street branches.”
Web and brand design specialist Conchango has given this 18-24 group – sometimes the age ranges differ by the odd couple of years – the moniker ‘Wired Millennials’ following research on e-commerce futures by the Future Laboratory. It has also dubbed the 25-40-something and 45-54 age groups ‘Keyboard Socialites’ and ‘Newly FREDDs’ (free of debt and dependents), while the over 55s have become the ‘Engaged Elders’.
Paul Dawson, head of interactive media at Conchango, says the key travel sites that appeal to the 18-24 generation include WAYN, Bootsnall and TripAdvisor.
“And what particularly frustrates them design-wise is that these sites are all separate. That explains the rumour that TripAdvisor was acquiring the Facebook application Where I’ve Been for $3m, though the rumour was subsequently denied,” he says.
“For the ‘Wired Millennials’, who have between 150 and 250 friends on MySpace and Facebook, you have to make the design work, so they say ‘that’s cool’ and tell all their friends.
“They are so comfortable with the web and mobile phones that they don’t see them as technology, so they have strong expectations of how websites should behave. Their expectations have been set by Google Maps: they’re likely to click on a map and try to drag it.”
In contrast to the younger generation, the travel proposition offered by Saga and similar sites aimed at the 55+ market such as Prime Adventures (www.primeadventures.co.uk), Titan HiTours (www.titanhitours.co.uk) and Great Rail Journeys (www.greatrail.com) has to take into account the older generation’s spending power and motivations, understand some accessibility and usability issues, yet still recognise that older web users are still web users and not patronise them.
Keith Lavender, webmaster at Prime Adventures, says sites must be subtle in their approach to usability for the over 55s.
“Some sites can mistakenly patronise the over 55s and consider them not that web-savvy.
“But many people in that age group are embracing the web, Google Earth and Facebook, just like younger generations are doing.
“On Prime Adventures, you can customise the font size, and we have a strong use of colour. We also offer a chat facility for customers who want to discuss their booking needs, be guided around the website, or learn about the interactive maps and Google Earth features. And we offer an explanation of how ‘Live Chat’ works for those
unfamiliar with it.”
In the US, hotel chains too have targeted their brands at a particular generation and designed their websites accordingly, says Henry Harteveldt, vice-president and principal travel analyst at Forrester Research.
He adds: “W Hotels is targeting the 30-35 age group, making its hotels entertainment minded. The W brand is very hip and lifestyle oriented, akin to a ‘bar with a hotel in it’. W Hotels understands exactly what its customers are about, even to the extent of the ‘personal intimacy kits’ within the minibar. And the website design (www.starwoodhotels.com/whotels) reflects that fun: entertainment messages for visitors, options to buy cool music tracks, seductive images, and a theme of ‘wish for whatever you want whenever you want it’.”
The importance of understanding the generation you’re designing for is also important in understanding their brand loyalty – or lack of it.
“Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – have always challenged authority. They want to know why they can’t give their airline ticket to someone else if they want to. They’re unrepentant, and you’ll have to work hard to get their loyalty,” says Harteveldt.
So, US airline JetBlue’s countering of bad publicity after a series of flight cancellations by posting a YouTube apology, with its founder David Neeleman speaking straight to camera, earned praise from even its toughest consumers. As JetBlue relies on the web generation for the majority of its ticket sales, YouTube was the most appropriate means of reaching its core audience.
Innovative design and content for different generations doesn’t have to be difficult. One key area that many sites fall down on is the lazy way they write copy, suggests Conchango’s Dawson.
“You could use a standard hotel description, but you can also make it more relevant by inserting a suffix that adds value. For example: ‘….but we at XTC holidays think this hotel is really more for 18-30s’. Changing a few words can make a difference of 20%-30% in conversion rates.”
Netizen Digital head of design Richard Anderson says another important element in designing travel websites is trust.
“For travel site users, the security that the tour operator will still be in business in six months’ time and that they have some form of protection is vital.
“Conveying trust and professionalism is especially important for older age groups who grew up conducting their business face to face. Functionality such as user reviews, ratings and feedback can be extremely useful. Happy customers are always a powerful marketing resource, so if you have them, consider using them. If you don’t have them, and worry about overwhelmingly poor feedback, perhaps you need to view this as a fundamental weakness in your business?
“Social networking is usually considered the domain of the young. However, consider how all age groups might benefit from community elements.
“This may be especially relevant for group tours, where new friends are made. This might benefit your business because older generations are likely to produce higher-quality content. And well-designed and integrated community functionality can produce traffic for your site, including new users.
“Most of all, clear, meaningful calls to action are important. Don’t leave users wondering what to do. Build this into the architecture from the start. Consider each key page and how it can meaningfully direct users to products that will interest them.”
Effective website design for different age groups
Brand and web design consultancies Nucleus and Conchango are specialists at understanding brands and the generations they target. Here are their views on effective design for differing age groups.
Lindsey Cunningham, client services director, Nucleus
“We don’t make design changes for design satisfaction. We make website changes that sell. That’s your first priority – you’ll only engage the audience if it’s appealing to those people who are looking to book a holiday, and not people looking for cool web design.
“In designing for the brand – and not simply the website, you have to know your target audience. Middle-aged groups are the most time-pressured people because they have children and other priorities. So, they are much more task-oriented. That’s means stripping out unnecessary elements from websites to make it quick for people to do what they want to do. On the other hand, younger people do use the web for fun and will appreciate ‘cool’ features.
“You need to ask yourself: What’s the business driver – why are websites being built in the first place? What is the brand – and what does it stand for? It goes beyond the website and has to be aligned with all the business channels – website, phone, high street – to communicate the brand’s values. Who is the target customer for the brand?
“Sites have to be designed so that people can read and use them. What sort of web accessibility issues are we considering to make content accessible to people with disabilities and to the vast majority of users, including some older users? For some groups, that might mean optimising for keyboard rather than mouse users, for users with smaller screen sizes, or even for users where the speed of downloads deteriorates throughout the day, for example in the Middle East.”
Paul Dawson, head of interactive media, Conchango
“Design has to take the website beyond the browser. Facebook, for example, is a simple site. What’s compelling is its simplicity and structure that allows people to communicate with others.
“When searching, the 35-54 and 55+ age groups will often want to browse without a requirement for a specific set of data such as date, destination or cost. And yet, for a range of generations, for a search term such as cost, say for a proposed figure of £500, the search should be configured to provide options either side of that figure, because no term is absolute.”