College students are an important target audience for many websites. They're young, they're about town, they spend whatever money they have (often online), and they frequently look for many different types of information. For sure, they're an online generation spending — or squandering — large amounts of time on the Web.
To learn how students use websites, we conducted observational research with 43 students in 4 countries (Australia, Germany, the UK, and the USA). Participants ranged in age from 18 to 24 years and included 18 men and 25 women. Our test participants attended the following educational institutions:
- Freie Universität Berlin
- Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
- Miramar College
- Mesa Community College
- San Diego State University
- Southwestern College
- Thames Valley University
- University of California, San Diego
- University of London
- University of Reading
- University of Sydney
- University of Wisconsin
We tested students studying a broad range of topics — including business, engineering, the humanities, medicine, and science — at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Most were full-time students, with a few part-timers.
We used two different research methods:
- User testing: We asked participants to perform tasks while thinking aloud. These tests were conducted as one-on-one sessions in a conference room with the study facilitator sitting next to the student. Sessions encompassed two types of tasks:
- Open-ended tasks, mainly based on the user's own activities. For these tasks, users could go to any website(s) they wanted. Examples include:
- Find out how to get a student visa
- Find application requirements for law school
- Site-specific tasks. Users were asked to go to a predetermined site and carry out a given task. Examples include:
- There are many things to take care of for your new apartment, including turning on gas and power. Go to www.sdge.com to see what you need to do to get gas and electricity at your new apartment.
- The following companies are participating in a job fair at your school next week. You want to learn more about them before you give them your resume. See if you can find interesting information about the companies. [Followed by a list of corporate sites.]
- [On the university's site] Find out when the spring semester begins. Find the hours for the book store.
- Your friend was just diagnosed with asthma. He has difficulty breathing when he exercises. His doctor says there are several treatment options. Go to www.advair.com and www.mysymbicort.com and see if they have information that you can pass along to your friend.
- In-home recordings: Participants recorded all of their online activities for two days, using screen-recording software, and sent us a hard drive with the resulting files. This approach gave us insight into the students' context of use.
The students tested 217 websites in all, ranging from Aaron Dunlap and AC Lens to Legoland and Lexmark to Yelp and the Youth Speak Collective. The total number included both sites we had chosen for the site-specific tasks and sites that the users decided to visit on their own.
Myths about Student Internet Use
Our research refuted three of the most prevailing claims about student use of the Internet.
Myth 1: Students Are Technology Wizards
Students are indeed comfortable with technology: it doesn't intimidate them the way it does some older users. But, except for computer science and other engineering students, it's dangerous to assume that students are technology experts — or "digital natives" as it's sometimes called.
College students avoid Web elements that they perceive as "unknown" for fear of wasting time. Students are busy and grant themselves little time on individual websites. They pass over areas that appear too difficult or cumbersome to use. If they don't perceive an immediate payoff for their efforts, they won't click on a link, fix an error, or read detailed instructions.
In particular, students don't like to learn new user interface styles. They prefer websites that employ well-known interaction patterns. If a site doesn't work in the expected manner, most students lose patience and leave rather than try to decode a difficult design.
Myth 2: Students Crave Multimedia and Fancy Design
Students often appreciate multimedia, and certainly visit sites like YouTube. But they don't want to be blasted with motion and audio at all times.
One website started to play music automatically, but our student user immediately turned it off. She said, "The website is very bad. It skips. It plays over itself. I don't want to hear that anymore."
Students often judge sites on how they look. But they usually prefer sites that look clean and simple rather than flashy and busy. One user said that websites should "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."
Students don't go for fancy visuals and they definitely gravitate toward one very plain user interface: the search engine. Students are strongly search dominant and turn to search at the smallest provocation in terms of difficult navigation.
Myth 3: Students Are Enraptured by Social Networking
Yes, virtually all students keep one or more tabs permanently opened to social networking services like Facebook.
But that doesn't mean they want everything to be social. Students associate Facebook and similar sites with private discussions, not with corporate marketing. When students want to learn about a company, university, government agency, or non-profit organization they turn to search engines to find that organization's official website. They don't look for the organization's Facebook page.
Teenagers vs. College Students
Some of the myths this study refuted are similar to those refuted in our research on how teens use websites. It's tempting to assume that the guidelines for designing for teenagers would therefore apply to designing for college students — particularly since the youngest students are "teenagers," by virtue of having an age that ends in "teen."
However, for the purpose of usability studies and design guidelines, our definition of "teenager" encompasses only users aged 13–18. College students aged 18–24 are a different group that requires different guidelines because they exhibit different behaviors than the teens we've studied.
Play vs. Work
Teenagers prefer websites that have dynamic and engaging interactive activities, such as quizzes and games. They like sites to be "fun."
College students are much more goal-oriented. They like interactivity only when it serves a purpose and supports their current tasks. At the college level, users make a separation between play and work and don't require websites to entertain them at all times. Instead, students consider websites as tools. A good site is one that helps them quickly accomplish their goals.
Teenagers are poor readers and want sites to offer a substantial amount of content in pictorial form to free them from having to read. College students are strong readers and capable of dealing with more advanced writing. However, this doesn't mean that they like reading long texts. As with other higher-literacy adults, such as business professionals, students prefer websites that are easy to scan and don't intimidate them with a wall of gray text.
Here's what one student said about the US National Science Foundation's site: "There is a lot of writing. This site is very overwhelming. It's really hard to find things that will benefit me." And here's another student's comments on Wiley Interscience: "I don't like that [the page] is really, really long, want to just focus on one thing." Finally, here's a student's take on the BBC's website, which I've previously praised for good headlines: "Headings in long texts are good; break it up so you can read what you're interested in."
Although college students typically have high literacy skills, this isn't necessarily true of all 18–24 years-old users. About 40% of people in this age group have low literacy skills and will have difficulty reading anything beyond simple sentence structures. Thus, if you're targeting all young adults (as opposed to students only), follow the guidelines for writing for a broad consumer audience.
In usability studies with children, we found that content and interfaces must be narrowly targeted to very specific age groups. What's good for a 7-year old will seem too childish to an 8-year old.
Designing for students doesn't require nearly that level of age-specific targeting, but it is important to write for young people. Both in terms of style and in terms of topics, students expect different coverage than would be appropriate for older audiences or seasoned business professionals. But don't force yourself to be hip. That doesn't pass the smell test. And do respect the fact that students are adults.
Corporate websites' careers areas should have a special "students" section if they want to attract interns or new graduates. Content targeted at young people makes them feel more welcome and open to browsing the site. Being too formal or featuring only senior positions has the opposite effect. For example, one student felt that a leading management consultancy's site "doesn't look like it's within reach of recent graduates."
Students were frustrated by sites that provided shallow information. College students demand more evidence than teenagers do.
Not all students trust or believe everything they read on the first website they hit. In fact, many students were skeptical or turned off by websites that lacked depth and detail, or didn't answer their questions.
Whereas younger users don't always recognize advertising, students have a keen eye for ads and don't like being tricked by sites that don't clearly differentiate between editorial and advertising. Here's one student's comment on the eHow site: "I think that they have a lot of ads, which is kind of annoying. It kind of is difficult to distinguish what's the ad and what's actually on the website."
This doesn't mean that students dislike all ads. In the study, they appreciated ads and offers that appealed to them and were relevant to their current goals. For example, one student liked a fashion ad because "it's more up-to-date and specific to what I want."
Despite their general level of skepticism, most students suffered from Google Gullibility where they often uncritically selected the first result returned on the SERP (search engine results page).
Students usually kept many browser tabs open at the same time. When a site slowed them down, they'd usually switch to another tab and continue on another site. Even if they're just checking their Facebook page, such context switches removed users from the flow of using the first site. Thus, even in cases when they later returned, users had a harder time picking up where they had left off.
Student users' high inclination to multitask and low patience reinforce the need for quick, responsive, and easy Web design. Don't give students even the smallest excuse to check Facebook instead of staying with your site.
When students "multitask," they don't do so in the true sense of doing several things simultaneously. Rather, they perform frequent context-switches between various on-going tasks, but work on only a single website at any given time.
No International Differences
We tested in 4 countries on 3 continents, and many of the students were born in still other countries on other continents. No differences in usability findings. Students are the same everywhere in terms of the main Web design guidelines.
Of course, there are language differences, so a localized design remains superior to having a single, worldwide site.
Students coming from foreign countries are usually not native-language speakers. This means that they require simpler language than locally born users. In particular, it's important to avoid jargon, complex words and sentence structures, and puns and colloquialisms.
The full report on our user research with young adults with actionable website design guidelines is available for download. (Note that this report is now in a revised edition, incorporating additional user research with Millennials conducted after this article was written.)
Our University Websites report contains even more evidence-based recommendations on how to improve college and university websites.
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