Assignments: Assignment One
The Report: For the first assignment we ask you to compare two websites: one aimed primarily at males and the other aimed primarily at females. It's up to you to choose which ones but to avoid making a poor choice please propose the two sites in an email to Rod (email@example.com) at least two weeks before the submission date, and include a copy of the reply as an appendix to your submission. Apart from the gender difference, all the other demographic aspects of the sites should be as similar as possible: for example, if your male site is for a magazine aimed at middle-class British men in their 20s, your female site should be for a magazine aimed at middle-class British women in their 20s. You will be comparing the designs of the site (formal features, style, structure, appearance) rather than their 'content.' You will be looking at the typefaces, colours, layout and the use of photographs, rather than what the sites are selling.
Analysis: We expect you to go beyond mere description into well-founded analysis. This means addressing the question why the sites have been designed in the way they have. You must show considerable evidence of appropriate reading to back up your claims. The more relevant reading you do, the better your assignment is likely to be, and students who do not do enough library research are liable to do poorly.
Structuring your assignment: There are different methods that can be used to frame and structure a website comparison. We expect you to use semiotics, specifically the relevant semiotic concepts of: signifiers, signifieds, codes, connotations, paradigm, syntagm and the commutation test. You will need to look up what these concepts mean as well as demonstrating an understanding of how they can be insightfully applied to your examples in an analysis. For definitions of these concepts try Daniel's book at: http://users.aber.ac.uk/dgc/media/Documents/S4B/the_book.html You will need to consider the codes used in webpages: for example, what is signified by certain colours, typeface styles, layout, photographic features (framing, shot sizes, angles etc.), sound cues and so on. This needs to be related to the targeting of the website. Where photographs are used are there any obvious differences between the way in which your male and female-targeted sites use them? For instance, are close-ups more common on women's webpages than on men's or are men shown alone more often than women? Are there any differences in the use of humour? Remember to support your findings with relevant quotations from your reading which have to be properly cited. For information about citing and referencing sources see the general guidelines for written assignments at: http://users.aber.ac.uk/dgc/Modules/writess.html
Primary research:You must also test your findings on representatives of your target audience by doing some primary research. Design and pilot a questionnaire to be given to 10-20 people who represent your target audience. In order to focus the responses, it can be most productive to consider what would happen if you changed a single element of a website (such as substituting pink for red as the dominant site colour, using close-up photographs instead of long-shots, substituting decorative handwritten typefaces for bold ones and so on). In the practical sessions we will be showing you how to make such changes. We suggest you use such a test to survey people's reactions. See also: commutation test and semantic differential scale.
Some additional information:
Connotation versus preference With regard to a factor such as colour, focus on the connotations of these colours for particular user groups (that is, the way in which certain colours are used in certain sites). You can find out this information by surveying other websites and looking at the way they use colours. What are the similarities and differences? Try to identify patterns using this method rather than reading up about theories of 'colour symbolism' and quoting them as if they are scientific laws; e.g. white = purity or black = death (since colour symbolism is highly dependent on codes and contexts). Don't confuse colour preferences with colour connotations (e.g. many women hate pink but they'd still recognise it is a colour that is used to target them).
Sex and gender In discussing sex and gender, remember the distinction: 'sex' being a biological category and 'gender' a cultural category. Do not assume that women will naturally share certain preferences just because they are women (that is called naive gender essentialism). Try to avoid sentences that start with 'all men...', 'women naturally...', or 'the female mind'.
Other targeting factors Remember that gender is inflected by other factors (such as age, social background and so on). This is why we ask you to make sure that the sites you are comparing are similar in respect of other demographic factors. Note that the more down-market the site, the stronger the gender difference is likely to be (making your job easier). Similarly sites aimed at children seem to be very unsubtle in their use of gender codes: Barbie is all pink and girly whereas Action Man or Power Rangers are blue and have lots of control panels. If your site appears to be targeted primarily at heterosexuals or homosexuals, say so, and consider what design assumptions this seems to involve in conjunction with the question of which sex it is targeted at.
Stereotypes When dealing with gender in relation to design it is also important to be aware of relevant cultural stereotypes. Where there are noticeable differences between male- and female-targeted sites, to what extent do these seem to fit into common gender stereotypes? (See, for instance, this compilation of gender stereotypes in the media: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nIXUjzyMe0). Some reference to popular attitudes (and sources) may also be appropriate (as long as you make it clear that you are aware of the relative status of such sources: i.e. as evidence of widespread attitudes differentiating men and women rather than as evidence of 'essential differences'. It is worth noting how far such sites stray from conventional codes for their target user-group, since they must also differentiate themselves from their rivals for the same user-group.
Summarise commonalities as well as differences You are required to list, illustrate and discuss key differences (as well as similarities) between the sites. In order to demonstrate how typical the patterns you find are, you need to briefly review and summarise key commonalities shared by other sites aimed at similar demographic groups (notably in regard to colours, fonts and layout). Note that magazine sites are particularly useful in this regard partly because it is sometimes possible to obtain data on their readerships (e.g. in the National Readership Survey at http://www.nrs.co.uk/). Where there are differences, to what extent may these be attributed to other factors (socioeconomic background, age-group etc.)?
Research and reading You must demonstrate appropriate evidence from research evidence in support of points made. Don't rely only on your own judgements - you should actively seek out the reactions of members of the target user-groups concerned and show evidence of having done so (such as quoting from interviews). Your comparisons must also make adequate reference to relevant published theories both about the use of design concepts and about how to do primary research. Allow yourself plenty of time to gather the necessary materials (don't neglect the National Library). The main sources of existing studies are likely to be in the fields of: general graphic design theory, website design, typographic design, marketing, visual semiotics, gender studies, cultural studies and psychology (notably re. gender and colours).
Do not limit yourself to general handbooks on website design. You should refer to a variety of sources, including: (as background) the ideas of practitioners within the relevant industries/media (such as manuals of 'good practice'); market research (particularly any available statistics on the target user groups); and (most importantly, wherever available) formal academic research studies.
Evidence for claims Remember that you are expected to find the best evidence you can and you should offer some evaluation of the relative status of each source as evidence. Do not just quote what 'experts' say as if their words were gospel: what was their evidence? Compare one source with another. 'Colour symbolism' is a case in point. Just quoting the opinions and assertions of your sources is not evidence: what evidence did they offer? In fact, data gathered from your own informants is likely to be the best source of evidence on the connotations of colours used. Wherever possible, move beyond textbooks to specialised academic journal articles as sources of such evidence. Look back through the Powerpoint slides for the lectures as a key source of advice on what kind of features to look for. However, avoid citing lecture notes as sources of evidence. If you want to use some of the images, that's fine (just acknowledge the source). If you want to refer to studies mentioned, refer directly to the source (this is often specified in the normally invisible Notes section within the Powerpoint file).
Planning and presentation of your work Structure your document effectively, and remember that it is very important to illustrate your account (with screenshots, 'commuted' screenshots and cropped details in particular) incorporated strategically into the main text. Label and refer to these as Figure 1 (etc.). Don't forget to stick closely to the general guidelines for written assignments at: http://users.aber.ac.uk/dgc/Modules/writess.html. Computer Science students are welcome to seek guidance on approaches to writing from Theatre, Film and Television Studies students in the group as long as what is submitted is clearly your own work. The feedback sheet, containing the criteria used in marking, is at: http://users.aber.ac.uk/dgc/media/Modules/feedback_form.doc. Don't throw marks away by ignoring it!
Suggestions for sites to compare You need to choose appropriate sites to compare (and need to include with your submission an email message from me to say that your choice is OK). Some of the pairings previously chosen include: magazine websites such as Loaded versus Glamour, Maxim versus Company, Maxim versus Glamour, Nuts versus Glamour, Men's Health versus Shape, Men's Health versus Women's Health and Fitness, FHM versus Cosmopolitan; retail outlet websites such as Burton versus Dorothy Perkins, Topman versus Topshop, Burton versus Topshop; product websites such as Gillette Mach3 versus Gillette Venus, Lynx versus Impulse, Action Man versus Barbie; popular interest websites such as World Wrestling Entertainment versus England Netball.
Note that where the brands are part of the same corporate entity, the potential design tensions between corporate and brand identity need to be discussed.
Daniel Chandler and Rod Munday