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I’ve recently had a week away in North Devon, staying at a farm house out in the countryside; something which I love to contrast working with computers all the time.  I wasn’t entirely tech-free as I had access to someone’s laptop with their 3G node connection.

From time to time I’d check Gmail and Twitter and occasionally browse for a few minutes but because of where we were, there was no 3G coverage, so it was relying on GPRS.  It wasn’t awful but it was a comparable connection to the old 56kbps modems used before the days of broadband.

This reminds me a lot about thinking about the audience for a new site or web app.  When using Gmail, there is a link to a basic HTML version but it was still trying to load up the AJAX heavy version in the meantime, which meant it took a fair while before it’d let me in.  It’s easy to make assumptions that most people have broadband and that most people have a certain spec machine but it this too exclusive or fair in the name of pushing things forwards?

I often have the debate about fixed or fluid layouts, which I feel is very much about catering for a wider audience because of that that the assumption about screen-size can be dropped and the design needs to acquire additional skills to have the grid work under different constraints, which isn’t easy.

Alongside of connection speed and screen size, I also used my LG Viewty for accessing the web from time to time.  Devices will continually play a part in defining your audience.  The iPhone has reinvigorated the debate about there being ‘one web’ or catering for different experiences.  Another factor is price.  The iPhone (again) has disrupted this pattern.  For a flat fee you can have unlimited web usage on a device that is made for browsing the web, using an established browser engine (Safari powered by WebKit).  The Viewty isn’t bad but I have a small allowance or web downloads and will cost £7.50 per month more to have unlimited access.  The issue is that the device isn’t as targeted for web browsing as the iPhone and so I feel like this expense isn’t worth it.

When thinking about who uses our sites/apps, we need to understand the various kinds of people that will use a site.  I recently had my PC cock-up, which avoiding a tedious tech anecdote, prevented my mouse from working continuously, so I had to use my machine through keyboard alone.  Using the keyboard as the primary input device may not be as common as the mouse but people do it and some with disabilities may reply on this mechanism (I’m thinking about physical impairments).  When considering accessibility, it’s easy to assume obvious cases such as blindness but there are many conditions or circumstances that can inhibit the usability and accessibility of a site from colour-blindness (try this tool) or deafness (see this article at A List Apart) to poor sight or physical disabilities.

In short, being myself in positions that have given me a different experience of using the web has again reminded me that the potential audience for a site could be anybody.  A niche site will attract a different demographic but within this demographic will still be people with poor web connections or using non-desktop devices or have some kind of impairment or disability.  We have the tools and the information at hand to make more positive experiences fr the widest number of people within our audience.

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16th August, 2008