HCI and the challenges of mass communications

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 54
Digital Citation

There’s no such thing as an “average” user

Neil Budde

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In the American radio program Prairie Home Companion's fictional Lake Wobegon, we are told on each show's introduction, "All the children are above average."

I'm reminded of such hyperbole frequently when I hear how many people analyze various user behaviors for online products. In this case, however, too often the mistaken assumption is that all users are, in fact, "average."

In my field, I've seen advocates of online news publishing cite statistics that the average user of even the best online newspaper site visits 5.7 times a month for a total of 34 minutes a month. Oddly, these advocates of online publishing take comfort from this data, because it seemingly offers ammunition to refute claims that the Internet is replacing the good, old printed newspaper. They assert: How could half-a-dozen visits a month for only a few minutes replace the reading experience of a daily newspaper?

If all users were, indeed, average, then such an argument might hold up. But Internet users fall across a wide spectrum, from very light users to heavy users, and the average may well be skewed toward the lighter end of the curve, given the short, infrequent sessions produced by hyperlinks into discreet pages of a Web site. If one were to analyze the behavior of the five to 10 percent of the online news users at the heavy-usage end of the curve, their patterns might look much more like the traditional reader of a newspaper—almost daily or even more frequent visits to their online news site, significant time spent, and a large number of pages viewed. Is it possible that many of these top-tier users have replaced print with online? Quite likely, I would assert.

I raise this not to suggest that online publishers rethink their comfort level about print-to-online migration of media consumption but to highlight the need to go beyond averages when analyzing usage data and making design and business decisions based on it.

One of the great promises of the Internet is that it can provide us with a wealth of data on what users are doing on our sites. The trick is in the analysis. After all, "figures never lie, but liars figure."

Designers have long employed user scenarios—supported by usage data, or perhaps not—to model the different tasks someone is attempting to accomplish when coming to a Web site. As noted above, another perspective worth examining is the behavior of regular, heavy users vs. light or infrequent users.

With more sites seeking some form of registration, we can seek an even deeper understanding by marrying user demographic data with usage data. In one recent project on which I worked, a publisher's usage data was broken down between two main types of users based on registration data. We found that the two groups showed quite different patterns for when and how often they visited and what areas and functions of the site they used. This allowed us to plan for a segmentation of their site to serve each user group better.

Better and more affordable usage analytics will continue to put more data in the hands of a wider range of Web site operators. Turning that data into actionable information will require more than average thinking.

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Neil F. Budde formed The Neil Budde Group (www.neilbudde.com) after more than 25 years of working for newspapers and online publishers. Most recently, he was the founding editor and publisher of The Wall Street Journal Online.

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©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0300  $5.00

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