How undergraduate students use the Web

The Nielsen Norman Group has released a new study yesterday, that is taking a look at how college students (18 to 24) use the Web. Some of the results are confirming my expectations: social network websites are not everything when it comes to the Web. Here are the main points of the findings:

  • Students are not necessarily technology experts – they are less intimidated by technology than older folks, but assuming that they know everything and they are willing to try out anything is wishful thinking. Interfaces that look intimidating, are usually ignored for fear of wasting time.
  • Multimedia should be used cautiously – Websites that play music or a flashing animation after load are considered to be of low quality.
  • Simple interfaces are preferred – here’s a quot that summarizes well this point: “stick to simplicity in design, but not be old-fashioned. Clear menus, not too many flashy or moving things because it can be quite confusing.”
  • They use social networks, but it’s not everything – most of them tend to keep one or two tabs open with a social network website, but when it comes to finding more detailed and accurate information, they will turn to search engines.
  • Reading – Long walls of text are intimidating, they prefer pages that are easy to scan. Many of them have trouble following a text with long paragraphs and complicated sentences.
  • Age-appropriate content – The younger the age group of your audience, the more important it is to better target the content and the interface. When it comes to students, of course this task is easier than with 7-year-olds. Still the results of the study advise having a special section of your website if you want to appeal to this age group. For example if a company would be interested to attract interns or graduates, they should not write the job description the same way as they would for others.
  • Students have a an eye for ads – they are fast to spot an advertorial, not easy to be fooled with cheap tricks.

The study claims that there are no international differences, something that I have a hard time believing. It was conducted in North America, Europe and Australia, well, there is more to the World than that and especially when it comes to UI design, culture can have a big impact on the perception of a website. Another thing I missed from this study is the lack of mentioning of the Mobile Web. With all the smartphones and tablets would have been interesting to find out about their use by this age group.

The other day I was reading Google and the Rise of Facebook, by Brian Solis. He is seeing Facebook as the dominant presence on the Web, dethroning Google. He gives numbers and statistics of time spent on Social Network websites to support his argument. At the time I was uncomfortable with his argument, but now with these results from the Neilsen Norman study, I know what was the weak point in Brian Solis’s theory. The time spent on social networks is irrelevant, because the users might keep a tab open with Facebook all day long, or might be 24/7 connected trough a smart phone. The same way I could claim that we’re always on Google because our default search engine in our browsers is set to Google.

The way how Social Networks are used, or the purpose they are used for, is more important than how many people spend how much time on them.