New Study by Nielsen Norman Group Dispels Myth That College Students Are Enraptured by Social Networking and Cautions Marketers That Rely on It to Target Them

259-page Research Report Presents Findings and Website Design Recommendations Drawn from Observations of College Students Using the Web

FREMONT, Calif.--()--While it’s true that virtually all students keep one or more of their browser tabs opened to social networking sites like Facebook, it doesn’t mean they want everything to be social, according to a new study released today by user-experience research firm Nielsen Norman Group. The firm’s observational research, presented in a report entitled “College Students on the Web,” found that students associate social networking sites with private discussions and not with corporate marketing. When students want to learn about a company or organization, they turn to search engines to find that organization’s official website. Nielsen Norman Group suggests to organizations targeting students that focusing their efforts on their own site can be more effective than any social networking site.

“College students are squarely in the online generation, having grown up using the Web and now spending—and sometimes squandering—large amounts of time on it. While it’s no surprise that organizations targeting college students try to reach them on the Web, they’re mistaken if they think the best path is through social networking sites,” said usability expert Jakob Nielsen, principal of Nielsen Norman Group, “Sites like Facebook are simply not the first place that college students think to visit to get information about organizations.”

In fact, students first learn about a company’s presence on social networking sites from the organization’s own website, which they discover through search. In their minds, the organization’s website should tell them all they need to know. While students recognize the icons for various social networking sites, they don’t understand the relationship between the icons and the company’s site they are visiting.

“Right now, every site does something a little differently when it comes to social media. Standards about what happens when an icon is clicked have not yet been established, and students just aren’t willing yet to put in the effort to discover where an icon might lead them,” said Hoa Loranger, Nielsen Norman Group director and lead researcher of the study, “In the meantime, there is a lot we learned from our study that companies targeting college students can do to make their websites more appealing to students.

Nielsen Norman Group researchers conducted behavioral observations of 43 full-time college students in four countries while they performed tasks on 217 websites. Following are additional findings from their research:

  • Students like technology, but are not technical: College students are often stereotyped as being extremely tech savvy. While it may be true for some, most expect the Web to be easy to use and streamline their efforts without hassle. They don’t want to work too hard to figure out how to do something.
  • Students are unimpressed by fancy design and multimedia. College students generally view websites as tools to help them get things done. They appreciate multimedia on certain sites like YouTube, but they don’t want multimedia at all times on all sites. They like it only when it serves their purpose. Further, many students access the Web through wireless connections and laptops that don’t support multimedia that well.
  • Students move fast and miss information. Students immediately flee a website when confronted with a page full of dense text. They don’t even bother reading the first sentence. Their lack of patience and their confidence in their ability to use the Web reduces their interest in figuring out a website.

Nielsen Norman Group’s 259-page report, “College Students on the Web. Usability Guidelines for Creating Compelling Websites for College Students,” authored by Hoa Loranger, Marieke McCloskey and Jakob Nielsen is available to download for $128 at

About Nielsen Norman Group

Nielsen Norman Group ( is a user-experience research firm that advises companies on how to succeed through human-centered design of products and services. NN/g principals Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman and Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini are world-renowned user-experience pioneers who advocated for human-centered design and usability long before it became popular to do so. Besides authoring books and evangelizing at NN/g events about user experience, they and others on the NN/g team offer high-level strategic consultation on the usability of websites, consumer products, software designs and anything else that needs to be easy-to-use. Media contact: Darcy Provo,, 415-871-1731.


For Nielsen Norman Group
Darcy Provo, 415-871-1731

Release Summary

New usability study dispels myths about college students and the Web, among them that students are completely enraptured by social networking sites.


For Nielsen Norman Group
Darcy Provo, 415-871-1731