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HomeRants > Talk like a human being. > Probe your audiences--gently.> Do you know who you're talking to?



How to get to know the individuals in your audience:





Meet 'em

Ask about work

Probe motivation and free will

Focus on tasks at work

Ask about home

Ask about mental models

Explore personal differences

Explore group identities

Thank them

Ask questions online

Encourage people to look at their profiles on your site.

For more info

Do you know who you're talking to?

Do you know who you are talking to?

When you ask your boss or client who actually consumes your text, you often get a lot of waving of hands, without a few random facts, such as

  • A few numbers that research developed six months ago
  • Some shorthand guidelines issued by a committee reviewing the latest design
  • Some slogans from the latest marketing campaign.

But you rarely hear much about individuals. And because your job is to develop and carry on a conversation with these people, your prose can easily take on the all-purpose smarmy charm of an airline clerk announcing another delay.

The more you know individuals in your audience, the better you can write for them.

To find out about real individuals, you may be able to examine a consumer's profile, which may be a dossier that the site should build as the consumer navigates, ponders, buys, sends email, phones in, faxes a question, visits a kiosk, clicks in from a handheld. Ideally, your organization should have a single collection point for all information about each consumer.

Unfortunately, many organizations have no idea who consumes their text.

  • Manufacturers of packaged goods, for instance, haven't a clue who most of their customers are, because they tend to act as if the big buyers at the department stores and grocery chains are their "real customers." The only real consumers they are aware of are the ones who complained or sued.
  • Companies that sell big-ticket items gather a lot of financial information about each customer, but sometimes that gets spread across several departments, so there is no one file you can open, to review the facts about a particular individual.

If your site has any profiles for consumers, absorb them. But if those profiles are skimpy, or so mired in transactional information that you cannot envision the person behind the sales, you may need to do your own research to find out who is really consuming your text.


Who am I writing for, and, incidentally, who am I? (Full chapter from Hot Text, in PDF, 566K, or about 10 minutes at 56k)






  • Answer the phone in technical and customer support.
  • Respond to e-mails sent to technical and customer support.
  • Schmooze with consumers at trade shows, conventions, user group meetings.


  • Watch through the one-way mirror as the facilitators lead demographically representative consumers through questions created by the marketing group. (See if you can add a few questions of your own).
  • Hover around the usability lab. Watch how people get in trouble using your site. (Caution: this experience can be embarrassing if your text happens to be on-screen).


  • Competitive analysis, to see what the competition is creating, for whom, and why.
  • Marketing and sales numbers, to see what the trends are.
  • Marketing materials, and plans, to see how the organization is positioning itself, and for whom.
  • Product documentation, to see what tasks the writers imagine people are doing, what concepts need explaining, and what context people are assumed to be using the product in.
  • Annual reports-the biggest marketing documents of all, to see how upper management is trying to position the company in front of shareholders and analysts.
  • Every news story about your organization, to figure out who the reporter thinks your audience is.


Talk with anyone who has met, corresponded with, sold to, mollified, or hung up on a consumer, including:

  • Sales reps and sales engineers
  • Marketing people
  • Researchers
  • Trainers
  • Technical writers
  • Phone support and field-support personnel
  • Consultants
  • People in your partner organizations
  • Anyone who hires or manages the actual consumers

Meet 'em

Go out and meet the consumers, to see what they are really like.

Pick a dozen consumers who matter-ones whose good will and loyalty guarantee the site's survival. Not partners. Not influential stakeholders, like investors, ad guys, designers, engineers. Real consumers of your text.

Try to get to talk to them at length, in person, so you can watch their reactions, and not wear them out. But ask a lot of questions.

Ask about work:

  • What's your official job title?
  • What kind of content do you really use on the job?
  • What tasks do you have to accomplish, using that content?
  • Where did you learn to do your job? (School, training, on the job training, stand-up classes, Web courses, gossip, whatever).
  • Where does work come from, when it arrives on your desk, and where does it go after you get through with it? (Workflow)
  • What is an average day like? A crunch day?
  • How much leeway do you have to decide what you do when?
  • Where do you turn for general news relating to your work, organization, or industry?
  • What kind of Internet connection do you have at work?

Probe motivation and free will:

  • What are your main goals at work? How do particular tasks relate to those goals?
  • Is it your idea to come to our site, or are you required to do so?
  • Do you feel you have the power to affect the culture of your workplace?
  • Are you regularly involved in decisions that revolve around our kind of content?
  • What do you most like to do when exploring our site?
  • Do you feel eager to learn new information that relates to your tasks, your job, your organization, or your industry?
  • What are the consequences if you do not find the information you need on our site?

Focus on tasks at work:

  • What are the main tasks you do on the job?
  • What are the little tasks within one of the big ones? (Task hierarchy).
  • In what sequence do you usually do all these tasks?
  • Which ones do you do by yourself? With other people?
  • How long have you done each of these tasks?
  • How did you learn to do each task?
  • How have the tasks changed over the years?
  • Which tasks currently involve using our site?
  • What tools do you use to perform those tasks?
  • How comfortable are you with those tools?
  • Which of your tools do you like most, dislike, and why?
  • What problems come up when you are working on a task?
  • How do you generally solve the problems?
  • How do you describe the process of analyzing and solving one of these problems?
  • How well does our content match what you need to complete the task?
  • What is missing?
  • What other sites do you use in performing your tasks?

(link to task analysis???)

Ask about home, if appropriate:

  • What are your aims in life?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • How much time do you spend on the Internet at home? TV? Radio?
  • What kind of hobbies do you have?
  • What kind of neighborhood do you live in?
  • What kind of Internet connection do you have at home?
  • How close are you with your family? Friends?
  • What languages do you speak at home? Read? How familiar are you with languages other than the one you consider your primary language?
  • What is your highest level of education, and how do you think that affects what you do now?

Ask about mental models:

  • How would you describe the content we provide?
  • How should it be organized?
  • What terms do you use for the key concepts?
  • Which pieces of content are the most important for you?
  • What other content do you need, for your job? Is that something we can help you with?
  • What topics are associated with what other topics, for you?
  • Do you prefer learning from a diagram or from text?
  • If you want to learn something, do you turn first to another person, or do you go to TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, or books?

Explore personal differences:

  • How do you prefer to learn new material? (For instance, trial and error, asking others, formal training, reading ahead of time, self-paced interactive training, online courses).
  • What special needs do you have?
  • Are you color blind?
  • Do you have difficulty reading small type, or making small movements with your hands?
  • How do you feel when you have to change the way you do your job?
  • When do you prefer working together with a team, or by yourself?
  • How do you describe your gender? Your age?

Explore group identities and affiliations:

  • How would you describe your organization's culture to an outsider?
  • What are the aspects you like most, least?
  • What groups do you belong to, formally or informally?
  • What volunteer organizations do you occasionally work for?
  • What ethnic and racial cultures do you identify with, and how do you describe those? How would you describe my own ethnic and racial background?
  •  Do you have a preference for a certain way of organizing information, or carrying out tasks, based on the way you were raised in another country?
  •  How would you describe your socio-economic status? Mine?
  • Do you belong to any trade association, professional group, or union?

Thank them

Obviously, you can't impose on someone for a whole day asking a thousand questions like these. But some responses are more important for you than others. Concentrate on those issues.

Pay people for their time; give them cups, t-shirts, products, attention, and, yes, money. For you, their answers are gold.

Ask questions online

Online, people resent having to fill out a lengthy registration form just to visit a site or look at a particular page. If you are going to invite people to give you information to create an electronic profile, add to it incrementally.

  1. At first, ask only for the bare minimum needed for a transaction. Make sure that the visitor can see a single substantial benefit from giving the information, and then make sure that you deliver. They are investing their time. You must give them an immediate return on that investment. Feedback delayed fails to ingrain any habit.
  2. Log each visit by IP address, browser, date, and time, in the profile.
  3. Record any downloads-along with the e-mail address needed for that.
  4. Keep asking for feedback, and each time they offer some, ask a few more questions.

Encourage people to look at their profiles on your site.

Let them see their entire transaction history, and all the information they have provided you, over all their visits.

Let them modify their profiles, too. You'll be surprised how many more fields they fill in, once they get started.

Respond, too. As soon as a consumer enters an update, display it right away, not the next day. Convince your consumers you are listening.

  • Never ask for the information the consumer has already given you.
  • Supply names, addresses, preferences, without being asked.

You can see that you need a lot of time to explore all these questions with an individual. But once you have met with a dozen consumers, you'll begin to have a very deep sense of the different kinds of people you may be writing for.

For more info

See: Beyer and Holtzblatt (1997), Hackos (1995), Hackos and Redish (1998), Jonassen and Hagen (1999), Peppers and Rogers (1993, 1997), Price and Korman (1993), Schriver (1997), Seybold and Marshak (1998), Seybold, Marshak, and Lewis (2001).

Next: Analyze their tasks

Who is this person?  Why is he wearing a Lego truck on his hat?



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2002 Jonathan and Lisa Price
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