Make Sense Out of What You Learn about Your Audiences
Psychology at your service: How many ways can you slice a personality?
You'd think that by now humans could have come up with a single theory of personality. But no. Just in the realm of therapy there are dozens of theories taking off from Freud and Jung, and spreading like jungle grass. If one of these therapeutic approaches makes sense to you, go ahead and use it to interpret the information you have just gleaned from the actual consumer.
Ditto for religion. If a particular religion gives the world meaning for you, then by all means use its theory of personality to interpret the consumer and your relationship to that person. If you follow a spiritual practice, observing the movement of your inner life, use your guru's ideas to understand yourself in relation to the other. If you're a novelist, write a narrative. Stories are an excellent way to envision a character in action, or create a drama, a video, or a song.
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Whatever profession you come from or live among, it probably offers you its own dominant psychology, its own way of interpreting human behavior, refined and disputed by various splinter groups, crusading sects, and reformers. For instance, economists, who for years believed that all economic behavior was reasonable, are now beginning to recognize a new type of person: the irrational consumer. Similarly, cognitive science which has focused for years on thought problems that can be simulated on the computer, has edged into fuzzy logic and a deeper sense of human unpredictability.
Even the discipline that fostered writing, rhetoric, has its war of psychologies between the post modernists, the traditional Aristotelians, the Sophists, the discourse community folks, and worse.
Bottom line: There are hundreds of psychologies out there, and you should adopt whichever one you feel familiar with, because the point is for you to make sense out of your users and readers internally. If a particular approach seems cold, unfeeling, or unfamiliar, skip it, because it will not help you to conceive of your audience in realistic human terms.
But adopt some method. You need a theoretical framework in which to organize and preserve what you have observed. If no psychology appeals to you, consider task analysis, use cases, or niche analysisa set of interlocking tools that come from usability study, object-oriented programming, and, yes, marketing.
Analyzing the tasks
Somehow, through direct interviews, studying the research, or asking questions on your site, you have gathered a lot of information about exactly what your consumers do and why. If you want to produce text that helps people achieve their goals, try thinking through the tasks each consumer performs over and over.
A task is an action someone performs to reach a goal. The name of the task is whatever the consumer says it isnot what your team likes to call it.
Each person starts with a goal, such as finishing the budget, getting a raise, learning a new skill, getting in touch with other people, or just being amused. Sometimes this goal aligns with what the boss wants, but usually the organization's goals, such as increasing profit margins, reducing time to market, or cutting five people from the support team, just make the person's life difficult. Pretending to do what the boss wants, while getting some personal amusement, can be a challenge.
As a writer you must care more about your consumers than about their corporations, universities, agencies, labs, or non-governmental bodies. Corporations don't read. Try to identify the goals in the way your consumers really talk about them because the terms they use to describe their goals reflect their values, passions, and life experience.
Goals are as multifarious as people. For instance, here are some of the different goals people may come to your site with:
To have funto be entertained, pulled out of one's self, aroused, fulfilled, stirred up and satisfied, to participate in a game, to play.
To learnto pick up facts, to see patterns, to recognize sequences, groups, hierarchies, and themes, to learn to solve problems, to talk in a new language.
To actto make a purchase, to register, to acquire, download, send or receive information, software, music, videos, or whatever.
To be awareto sense what is going on internally and in others, to grow, to become, or just to be.
To get close to peopleto share, to show off, to feel intimate with total strangers through virtual conversations, postings, flames, posturing and revealing.
Generally, people formulate a goal rather vaguely and then form a specific intention, which demands a certain course of action. When they carry out that activity, they pause and look around them, to see what has changed. They interpret the state of the world, to evaluate the outcome. Carrying out a task involves the entire cycle, starting with the aim and moving through the activity to a decision about whether or not the actions have led to success.
There are many selves in a character, and their relation to each other is the matter that is often most obscure. What complicates the search, then, is not the simple fact that identity inheres in action and must be sought there, but rather than the action is not single in its purpose. Once again we are looking for a cast, for a script, and for an explication du texte.
Jerome Bruner, "Identity and the Modern Novel," in On Knowing
You may want to analyze important tasks by walking the person through this cycle. Or you might settle just for noting the concrete actions taken to achieve the goal. (These actions may end up as individual steps in your instructions, if you need to tell people how to do the task.)
Start by listing all the tasks that flow from a particular goal in no particular order. Then organize them into chronological order as best you can. (Some tasks always happen at the start, others at the end, and the rest could happen, well, at any time). For the tasks that could happen anytime, try to discern a reasonable grouping by action or object worked on. You want to make some kind of meaningful order out of the collection of tasks because this inventory may form the basis for a menu system and an organization of your instructions, procedures, or FAQs.
You may find that some tasks are very large scale, such as shopping or getting a raise. Other tasks are intermediate in scale, such as finding the section of the site that describes printers or completing the new proposal for the boss. And lots of tasks are small scale, like spell checking the proposal to make sure the company name is spelled right. Beneath the level of a task are individual steps.
Turn your inventory into a task hierarchy, a multilevel taxonomy of all the tasks that your individual consumer performs in pursuit of a particular goal, from large to small. At some point you may want to build a task hierarchy for each goal pursued by each of your consumers and then merge them, to see which tasks are vital to everyone, and which aren't, or where the variations occur. In this way you are creating a menu system for a set of procedures, or FAQs, showing people how the large-scale tasks relate to the others, as they drill down to the specific task they want help on. And you are beginning to see where you may need to offer separate menus for people who have different goals.
Because work often moves from one person to another, you may need to diagram the workflow to show how the same document or transaction moves from desk to desk. In this way you can create accurate scenarios for different consumers, looking at things from one person's desk and then another's.
Insert the problems along the way. You'll probably want to write a way around these or offer a solution.
Extract a vocabularythe terms that these different consumers use for the goals, the tasks, the objects they operate on, and the outcomes. For definitions, quote your consumers, if you can, rather than acting like Noah Webster.
Tie consumer profiles to business rules, events, and objects
If you work in an object-oriented environment, you may want to adopt a similar approach as a way to make sense out of the raw impressions you have collected from actual interviews. If your organization already has developed electronic profiles of each visitor, you can work with the team to use the profiles to recognize individuals or groups who trigger these events. These events, to which the system reacts by following certain business rules, can invoke particular objectssome of which may include your text. For example:
User profile: The profile shows this person is a network engineer, who has a dozen of your high-end routers installed, visits the site every few days, joins the trouble-shooting discussion list, and is interested in beta-testing new products.
Business rule: If the company has more than $500,000 worth of our products installed, and if the person is an engineer, and if the person has volunteered to do beta-testing, then we should alert this person by e-mail and in a special notice on his personal Router Page.
Event: The person arrives, and the system checks the profile, then checks whether there are any beta-testing products available for this type of customer, decides there is one, and calls for the content management software to display an object called Notice on this person's personal Router Page.
Object: Along with the other objects that go to make up the personal Router Page, the software displays the Notice object that shows a photo of the new box, and invites the visitor to ask for beta testing, using the dropdown form.
The informative objects that you care about are extremely simple from a programmer's point of view. They are chunks of text, with associated art, sound, videoa single unit of meaning with all the necessary components. Unlike a programming object, an informative object has a limited function that responds to a question or need of a consumer by providing some kind of information (no calculating the interest on a bank loan, or figuring out the extended price). The main activity your informative objects perform is to display themselves when instructed.
To figure out when and where to display an informative object (and for whom), you develop little scenarios called use cases. You sketch out little scenes in which one or more actors get involved in tasks, leading up to an event that is handled by one or more objects. For programmers, these tasks, events, and objects can be quite complex. For writers, the picture is crude. Someone comes to the site with a goal in mind, starts acting to attain that goal, and sets off various alarms, signals, and activity in the software, which is comparing the person's profile with the relevant business rules, and wondering if any of these actions merits calling a new object. You probably don't care about the subtleties of event handling, triggers, or object methods. You just want to know who comes to the site and does something that deserves special content wrapped up in an informative object.
After you have developed a few dozen use cases, you can start shuffling them:
Which ones are the most important to the consumers?
Which ones really involve offering substantially different content?
Which ones cause the most problems, raise the most questions, and require the most support?
For instance, you might find that most shopping carts are abandoned at the page when consumers discover the true shipping costs. One solution might be simply to move shipping costs to the product pages so that people can make an accurate estimate of the complete cost of the item before wading into the purchase process. This approach might seem a little up front, even daring, but by telling people this information ahead of time, you avoid the moment of disappointment when they discover the real costs after laboriously typing in their name and address, credit card number, expiration date, and so on. In effect having looked at the use case that had dramatic problems, you would move that informative objectthe shipping options and their coststo a more relevant page.
A use case offers the following information:
A story with screenshots and imagined conversation, and internal dialog.
A description of a complete and meaningful experience from the consumer's point of view.
A focus on the goals of the user, rather than the mechanics of the software.
A way of figuring out how to improve your site, not just record the current process.
Use cases live comfortably in an environment of content management software built on top of a database full of objects that get assembled on a moment's notice to form pages for a particular visitor. Unfortunately, unimaginative use cases often end up describing current practice, suggesting no need for new content. And even when the team focuses on problem areas, the theme is usability, with the subtext of action and transaction, but that often makes the team think about what is doable rather than what consumers really want. In the world of objects, people can easily become stick figures.
Lumping people together into small groups
Niches are a compromise. Identifying a particular segment of the audience can help you figure out particular topics that will interest that group, develop a tone that establishes your attitude toward them, and signal the relationship that you hope to have with those people. But grouping people into a niche like this may overlook the unique character of individuals, the very specific facts you learn when you talk to people directly.
Traditionally, when creating a large document like a manual, book, or CD, we throw together topics that appeal to many different subgroups in the audience. We may create certain sections for absolute novices, offer troubleshooting for the competent performers, provide information on what's new in this edition for the old-timers, and show specs and behind-the-scenes data for the truly expert. All of that goes into a single document on the theory that different groups can find what they want in different places. But on the Web, we have the opportunity to create separate paths for each group we write for, displaying only the content appropriate for that group so the beginners don't bump into the 20 levels of hardware specs by accident, and the experts are never insulted with a home page featuring a marketing overview. (Each group can find the other material; but if we customize content by niche, first show each group what interests them most).
Who am I? In part a persona supplied by culture and in part one crafted by myself. My persona is the image I have of myself and what I want to project to others, how I connect to others, a set of self-concepts.
Robert Weber, The Created Self
Based on your research and talks with actual consumers, you can probably figure out a half dozen niche audiences. For instance, when researchers tried clustering regular Web users, they found:
Upscale, sophisticated, urban-fringe or ex-urban families use the Web to gather news and information, make travel reservations, buy stuff, and handle finances and stocks. For them, the Internet is a convenience.
Small-town, middle-class families and working-class farm families prefer entertainment and sweepstakes sites, viewing the Internet as a replacement for TV.
Men spend more time than women buying stocks, comparing and buying products, bidding at auctions, and going to government Web sites, whereas women prefer e-mail, games, coupons, and info on health, jobs, and religion. (Michael Weiss, 2001)
Niches form around income, age, gender, geographic location, occupation, and outlook, as advertising researchers have demonstrated over the last 30 years. Generally, people behave on the Web as they do in the rest of their life, favoring certain brands, attitudes, ideas, and activities. So demographic information developed over the years may help you flesh out what a particular niche wants from your text. On the other hand, the Web also allows upper-income folks to visit stores they wouldn't go into at the mall, and the Web shifts shopping times into the evening, and dampens seasonal variations in purchasing, so you need to define your own niches, based on your own research, supplementing it with the generic stuff. Nowadays, the customer relationship management folks think this way, developing clusters of people around their shopping habits, interests, and industries. But so far most of this data is being used to determine which ads to display to which visitors. Today, only the most advanced sites customize content for more than three or four niche audiences.
The smaller the niche you define, the better, because the focus helps you figure out exactly what topics they care about, what moves them, what examples might make sense to them, what ideas they resonate with. Imagine writing in five different voices for five distinct groups. As you become more attuned to the little groups within your audience, you become a ventriloquist or a character actor playing a series of roles.
This chameleon-like ability to take on the tone and attitude of a niche audience is not as insincere as it sounds. People do this all the time, to earn their way into a particular community, adopting that group's way of talking. More subtly, you can prove that you should be considered a member of the community. Here's how:
Show you recognize the divisions within the community.
Indicate that you agree on the boundaries of the community (who is in, who is not).
Accept the latest definition of what is hip and not hip.
Stress the values and attitudes that are widely and deeply shared by the community.
Follow the general agreement on what topics are important today.
Take sides in the arguments that go on continuously within the community.
Contribute new ideas, comments, and support to the ongoing conversation (taking part, caring enough to hold up your end of the conversation).
Position yourself in relation to the rest of the community (as a leader, follower, troublemaker, what not).
Use key slogans, totem ideas, and jargon in the right way (not like a school principal trying to talk to kids in their own slang).
Refer regularly to activities that people in this community take for granted and do not mention activities they disdain, can't afford, or never heard of.
In a way, you are like a method actor pulling out personal memories to build a new character. To help clarify what you need to do to appeal to the niche audience, you'll probably want to draw up some guidelineslists of likely topics, positions, and arguments. But like an actor, you may also want to think of personal experiences that resemble the activities, evoke the values, and support the ideas of the group.
To succeed in writing for a niche, you must really join the niche, wading right into the conversation. For writers a community has more to do with their discourse than their purchasing habits. Despite working for a particular site and taking its direction, you are adopting the group's style, adding to its stock of ideas, and becoming a member.
Create personas to represent the people you are writing to
When you write as if you were someone else, fitting into his or her skin, you are adopting a persona. But Alan Cooper, inventor of Visual Basic, suggests creating a persona for each important segment of your audience to give a personal face to the group's prominent characteristics, and to get past the blandness of demographic generalizations. In his book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, Cooper advocates using personas during the design of software. As you try to make sense out of what you have learned about the people who consume your text, you may find his approach helpful in planning your writing, particularly if you already have a taste for fiction.
A persona is a made-up person you will write to. A real person may have several different goals in mind, but a persona is built around a single goal or one main objective. Every time you spot a different goal, you create a new persona.
Remember that a goal is the persona's purpose, not a set of tasks. Too often we focus on the tasks the "average" user might want to accomplish, particularly if that sucker does what our management wants and buys, buys, buys. Task thinking quickly leads to decorating the site's functions with labels and help, assuming, for instance, that everyone has the same reason for using the shopping cart, and therefore offering the same boring FAQ text to everyone. (What if some people are just using the shopping cart to hold products they might buy, but fear they will never find again, in your confusing morass of a site?) Emphasizing one goal per persona helps you get your mind out of the gearbox.
Once you have a persona's goal clearly defined, dress the character up. Assign a name, an age, an employer, a daily routine, and a car, but not just any cara particular car with a dent on the front right bumper. The specificity is important because it helps you believe in your own creation. For instance, starting from the fact that many consumers come to your site with the goal of deciding which kind of software to buy, you might create a persona named Emma Aragon.
Is this then a touch? Quivering me to a new identity.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Emma is a 35-year-old mother of Adrian (12), Lucero (10), and Jose (6). Her husband Herb is the head of the morning shift down at the Sears Auto Parts shop at the Coronado Mall. She works as an architect of one-family homes in a three-architect firm, Aragon, Carter and Rodriguez, in downtown. She's responsible for meeting potential clients, interviewing them, preparing preliminary estimates, sketching out floor plans, refining the design, working with the engineering team on air, electrical, and plumbing plans, preparing budgets, supervising contractors during construction, meeting with the partners to plan expanding their practice into office buildings and manufacturing plants. She has a Masters in Architecture from the University of New Mexico, and is working on a Masters in Business Administration through the Anderson School of Management at UNM (only two more years of night and weekend courses). She drives a six-year-old white Ford pickup with a dream-catcher hanging from the mirror. Her concerns include daycare for her youngest child and healthcare for her grandmother Elisa Baca, who lives in the house next door. She is also concerned about the poor quality of her neighborhood elementary school, Los Gallegos, which regularly ranks in the bottom third of all schools in the state. For blueprints, she uses AutoCad but hates its interface, and for presentations to clients, she uses consumer programs such as 3D Architect, because the results look more attractive and help clients imagine what the house will look like. Her main objective is to create such imaginative designs that when her clients move into their new homes, they are delighted. She expects her drafting software to offer technical precision as a minimum, but as an experienced designer, what she really seeks is flexibility.
You want to create a character you can believe. Borrow facts from the people you have actually met, but do not just copy wholesale from a real person. Build in the details that will influence what you write. If you succeed at developing a believable character, you will stop letting yourself assume that if a sentence makes sense to you, it will do. Now you have to make sense to Emma.
You escape the conventional idea of skills, too. You begin to see that individuals have expert skills in some areas, but novice abilities in other areas. No one person is a complete idiot. By focusing on goals, you can get away from the easy but simplistic distinction between power users and beginners, a distinction that was probably first created to excuse failures in interface design and programming ("Well, any power user could manage this feature," or "Well, we know beginners can't figure this out, so we provide a wizard for those dummies.")
A persona helps you focus on the main activities this kind of person wants to carry out, pursuing her goal, encountering your text as part of the interface, and then as meaningful content. A persona embodies a niche audience in action, following an intention through your prose. Now you are in a virtual conversation with an individual, and your prose takes on a warmer tone.
Develop a cast of personas and then winnow the list down. You might create a few dozen, then recognize similarities, toss out redundancies, and end up with six or seven. Give top priority to any persona who must be satisfied with your text, and who cannot be satisfied with text intended for someone else. In this way you end up with a set of "real" people you are writing to, like familiar e-mail correspondents, and you can create targeted text for each.
We must produce more selves for newer situations because, in William James's sense, the number of social selves is growing rapidly.
Robert Weber, The Created Self
Serious creations of the self, like the inventions of technology, have the capacity of transfiguring life and society.
Robert Weber, The Created Self
You're going to create content for each persona. You're not going to make one persona read something that's really intended for another, the way a magazine site often does. "The broader a target you aim for, the more certainty you have of missing the bull's eye," says Cooper.
And, because you come to envision each persona as if he or she were a living person, you develop a unique relationship with the persona, and your tone reflects that, making your style more, well, personal.