FEATURE: What makes web users ‘tick’?
Climate knowledge brokers convened by CDKN and GIZ in Bonn this weekend were interested in ‘what makes web users tick’. Mairi Dupar of CDKN took part in some revealing discussions.
Online knowledge brokers have the habit of making assumptions about what their audience wants, and how web users behave when they arrive at an online portal.
After all, website user testing, at its most sophisticated, can be quite expensive. How easy it is, then, to imagine web users’ wants and needs, and how these imaginary users might navigate a website.
At the second annual meeting of the Climate Knowledge Brokers, participants were eager to reach out and engage with users of online climate and development information, and learn first hand about their real attitudes, preferences and frustrations.
A small group of users were recruited via a climate-l announcement, and peer-to-peer outreach. We asked these users:
- Why do they look for climate and development information online – to support which tasks and activities?
- Which languages do they prefer?
- Which online sources do they prefer?
- What kind of information do they look for – such as raw data or analysis?
- Do they share the information they find online with others, and if so, how?
Our recruits included: a Canadian analyst who researches low emissions development options in Kenya; a Cameroonian activist looking for climate finance opportunities; an Indonesian lecturer at a German university who disseminates information climate-affected communities in Asia, a Bhutanese climate negotiator, and several others.
It’s all about trust
The big story to emerge from the user interviews was about trust.
Our interviewees were circumspect about the large universe of online data and knowledge on climate change and development. They tend to take one of two approaches:
- They go straight to a known source of reliable information, such as United Nations websites and databases; or
- They use google (by far the prefered general search engine among this group) to search for certain topics and keywords, then they pick out familiar and trusted sources from the results pages.
Behaviours varied but there was a common thread, though. Whether they took the ‘google first’ or
the more direct approach, none of these users had the time or inclination to trawl through the websites of unfamiliar organisations and thus subject themselves to material of unknown quality. What’s more, these users’ familiarity with and use of climate and development portals—which aim to filter and sign-post information for users—was relatively meagre. This was a timely wake-up call for the initiatives present that they need to step up their marketing efforts.
Email: the killer app
The users we interviewed were based in diverse countries and many moved between university or office locations in Europe and North America, and locations in developing countries. There was, therefore, a great deal of experience among the group in trying to access climate and development information in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Here, their common story was one of electricity blackouts and disruption to internet service; unreliable broadband or very slow dial-up connections. One or two of the group said they use smartphones to access the internet, but not necessarily for climate information.
In these situations where internet availability is disrupted, users spoke about their reliance on email. A show of hands across all participants in the meeting demonstrated the popularity of the climate-l listserv as a trusted and (technologically) reliable source.
A Cameroonian internet user said: ‘if someone returns to Cameroon from the climate negotiations or finds useful climate information they want to disseminate to the NGO community at home, they just use email to call together everyone in person.’ The world of tweets , facebook ‘likes’ and sophisticated portals is still relatively remote for this community. And of course, they tend to be more technologically connected than their target beneficiaries at the grassroots level.
Research study on online users
The user interviews at the Climate Knowledge Brokers’ workshop provided just a glimpse into the universe of online behaviours, and their implications for the online knowledge infrastructure. The exercise also biased users who are related to the UNFCCC negotiations process, because it took place in the margins of the intersessional meeting.
The exercise formed part of a broader research project by IDS and IISD, supported by CDKN, to map and analyse user behaviours. Visit the project description on our website to find out more about this research project.
If you want to tell us how you get your online climate and development information, please leave a comment in the box below.
Image of the Climate Knowledge Brokers’ meeting, May 2012, courtesy of Geoff Barnard, CDKN.