We wrote this article with Francesco Cara at the end of 2001.
All Internet users can be split up in three main categories : expert, naïve and what we call “light” users. Experts are the first comers to the net, the nerds, the ones who download software, who remember Mosaic, who can tell you the difference between Google Altavista and Yahoo!, who wouldn’t be seen dead near AOL. Naïve users haven’t moved into the Internet yet, they are still waiting for a good reason to log on; sometimes they are back seat drivers asking their kids to find them what they need. They still think that Internet is magic and that there is only one site for each topic.
Light users are regular internet users who use the net one or two hours a week, doing a bit of email, looking up practical content, such as train timetables and cinemas. This is a relatively new user population, which appeared in the last couple of years as the internet generalized to a less pioneering style of consumer. On the classical curb of technology adoption (Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority pragmatists, Late Majority conservatives, Laggards), these users correspond to the pragmatists and conservatives, who don’t rush to buy new technology but wait to see if it works, if it is really useful and if it is available at a cheaper price. The interest of this user group is that it represents the majority of new users on the net and the target of future expansion. If ever the internet user population moves above the threshold of 25-30% of the global European population, the newcomers will all be in this category.
Most light users have very stereotypical behaviours : after six months of usage of the internet they stop even trying to do searches through a search engine and consult systematically the same six or seven sites. Search engines are too complex and deliver too many answers to weed through. These users usually give up searching because it is too costly for the results they obtain. The cost is both in trying to guess the correct combination of terms to search with and in assessing the results to find sources that are interesting and reliable. Their only way to discover new sites is to collect URL addresses in the press or other traditional media or from friends and family. In this case, new sites are visited by entering a URL in the navigation bar, and assessed in a couple of minutes for the value of their content, design and originality.
When left to their own resources these users tend to explore the websites of brands they are familiar with, which in general are well established offline brands. Brick and mortar brands are usually perceived as more reliable and solid than brands that only have an online virtual existence. Light users therefore will prefer to look for historical content about Mesopotamia on the British Museum web site rather than on the web sites of obscure associations or colleges. It makes cognitive sense to transfer online what one knows of the offline brand and it is more reassuring.
Light users regularly visit only 6 or 7 websites. Typically among these sites there is a portal ( usually the one of their Internet Provider ) , 3 or 4 very practical sites like the Yellow Pages or travel timetables, and a couple of sites related to their professional interests or hobbies. The only sites they actually identify as providing content are the ones related to their interests, the others are perceived and used as tools to achieve some practical task. Light users have been fast to recognize in the web a reliable source of up-to-date practical information.
Navigation within sites is also very procedural and follows rigid routines, the same pages are visited, the same paths followed. If a path to some piece of useful information is successful it is always repeated even if it is not the most efficient. We see users following the most bizarre paths, getting to a site or a page from another site they are not interested in, just because this is how they found it the first time and as they say “well it works..”. Occasionally these users stray from their sites using the links on the pages of their favorite sites, but just like toddlers who never stray more than a few meters from their mothers, these users don’t go too far from their familiar sites.
When new sites are explored the discovery strategy is one of “tiny bites”. Users skim the content and plunge in three or four sections either looking for some precise type of information or assessing the new site by verifying the nature of the information provided in comparison to other supports they are familiar with. These users don’t read full pages of text but skim through the pages and sections at great speed to get a general sense of the site’s style, content and value.
In short most internet users, don’t use search engines, only visit a few sites and always the same ones, they prefer well known offline brands, they don’t read but skim through content looking for something specific. Reading proper starts only when they reach their target. They use the internet in a very practical fashion to obtain specific information and as a tool to do practical tasks. As reported by numerous studies on how users read web pages, 3 out of 4 users only skim text and 1 out of 6 actually reads text in full (see for example Nielsen and Morkes, 1997).
We have observed over and over again in our Labs, that users’ main activity is to rapidly analyze the page to judge where they are, if they are going in the right direction, if they have reached their target. When using information portals or newspaper sites for instance we observe users either staying at the surface, just reading a couple of items that are “advertised” on the home page, or following the same well known path every day to reach a section they are interested and familiar with. In both cases the site is dramatically underused as the “top layer skimmer” never drills down to anything deeper and the “familiar section” user, never sees anything else than what he knows