write differently for different audiences

Stop producing one product for the masses and start producing three or five products for the conflicting personalities and goals of different groups. In this post from my Adaptive Path tenure, Message to the Masses, I encourage writers to think from multiple audience’s perspectives.

(This post was originally published at Adaptive Path. Since Adaptive Path became a part of another corporation in late 2014, the post is replicated below for posterity.)

Message to the Masses

This week, we bring you an Adaptive Path Founder Emeritus to our blog.

Indi Young is an accomplished author, speaker and friend of Adaptive Path. As a founder she helped set Adaptive Path on it’s course and continues to inspire designers with her books Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior, and Practical Empathy for Creativity and Collaboration in Your Work.

The other evening at the dinner table, I happened to look at the pamphlet my boyfriend was unfolding from the stack of mail. It was from the human resources group at his company. My boyfriend is a research scientist for Bayer, just so you get a tiny idea of where his mind is half the time. Me—you’re already familiar with my kinds of thoughts in user experience. So he and I were a little surprised to read:

You take the time to make sure your car gets the routine care it needs. Are you doing the same for yourself?

I had a sneaking suspicion that I was reading a message aimed at someone other than us. Why the reference to a car? Which groups make cars a significant emblem in their lives? To be completely honest, neither my boyfriend nor I take our vehicles to the car wash. I barely get my car in for an oil change on time once every eight months or so. If we were the types to polish our Mustang in the driveway, then maybe this analogy would work, but we’re not. As members of the 40-50 set, my boyfriend and I spend much more time looking after our health than looking after our cars. Likewise, we are pretty familiar with the details of our medical plans.

So why did Bayer waste the paper sending us this message? It read like a non sequitur mouthed by a distracted elderly relative. So we opened the pamphlet to see if a different message was inside that we might want to learn. We saw this:

Taking Charge of Your Health: Does it ever feel like things are out of your control? Many things are ... Here are some ideas for taking charge of your health: Start by using your preventative care benefits; Exercise; Eat right; Manage your stress

“Use your preventative care benefits.” Ah, here was the crux of the message. They wanted to remind us of this benefit.

The rest of the page I can only rant about. So skip this paragraph if you’re inclined. The “Exercise” message we ignored, since we both run, swim, cycle and compete in race events. “Cut out one can of regular soda,” well since neither of us drink soda at all, the message was pointless. And there was that vague “Manage” verb describing what to do about stress. Curious, I read the final paragraph and got annoyed. “Walk a little farther, drink more water, and snuff out that cigarette.” For gods’ sake, Bayer! Why pester us about stuff we don’t have problems with? I didn’t even actually read the little introductory paragraph until the day I wrote this. Check it out. What a pithy piece of wisdom, don’t you think? Who does the writer intend to lecture wish such banalities?

After reading the pamphlet, I felt completely offended by the Bayer human resources group and I threw the thing in the recycling. Was that the reaction they had intended when they spent the money to write and distribute this message? Obviously, no … They intended to urge people to spend a little on preventative checkups so they could perhaps net a few unhealthy folks and help get them on track, thereby reducing costs overall on health insurance for their employees. That’s a reasonable goal, sure.

I guarantee Bayer has a database of its employees and knows whether a person has ever checked an “I smoke” box on a form. I guarantee they can ask the various health insurance providers to look up the names of folks who haven’t been for a routine exam in five years. It would take less than 30 minutes for the lowliest IT intern to get that set of names to the human resources group. Is this illegal, to target messages at people who smoke who haven’t had a checkup recently? Is it illegal to ask for a record of employee visits to the doctor’s office in the past five years? Perhaps.

As for the soda-drinking, since that isn’t a sin that has made it to a checkbox on a form yet, the writer could have asked rather than accused. The way the piece is written, the writer assumes the reader drinks at least two cans of regular soda a day. And the walking is an accusation, too, that the reader just sits on the couch, and isn’t already training for a trail marathon or going mountain biking and rock climbing with her friends. Then there’s the title—don’t get me started about gerunds as the first word in a title, “Taking Control.”

But this isn’t an essay about how to write better messages. It’s a reminder to choose specifically defined groups of people to write to. It’s about focusing on the reader rather than department assignments like “get more folks to sign up for routine physicals” and “remind people that smoking and regular soda is bad.” Can you clearly see the person you are writing to? If not, then your message is too broad and will fail to connect with the majority of the readers. Worse, it will annoy those it isn’t intended for, or even offend them. Envisioning the reader is something we all learn in our writing classes, but forget as soon as the stern pressure of “the assignment” bears down on our shoulders.

With chagrin, I feel like a communist revolutionary chanting, “Power to the people!” But here, unlike communism, “the people” refers to different groups exhibiting different behaviors and motivations, examined within myriad scopes—the developer who reaches out to team mates at their organization for help solving a problem versus the developer who is self-reliant and does not discuss his way through solution-finding.

Behavior & Motivation Differences in Groups

Behavior & Motivation Differences in Groups:  new university students include "passionate about the topic," "look forward to the college experience," "means to an end," and "exploring paths." People dating are "get on the love train," "see what happens," "trying too hard," and "think it through."

I say my message over and over. Whatever you produce must be in explicit support of a particular group. Whatever you produce: pamphlets, web applications, toothbrushes, requirements documents … I expect the folks that do the actual work and make the approvals “get it” and change their ways. Stop producing one product for the masses and start producing three or five products for the conflicting personalities and goals of different groups. Spend more effort and money and time up front to connect with the hearts and minds of the people in these groups, rather than tramping unshod over their uniqueness. Each individual truly believes she or he is unique, yet they will also tell you of the special interests they have in common with others and feel happy to be grouped by those concerns. Let us undertake simply to support them. And, if necessary, let us undertake to change laws that were written with one intent in mind, but inadvertently prevent us from doing something good.

group the intent

I just finished my Australian Road Show with the Web Directions folks. It was really illuminating doing the workshop three times in a row. I conduct five classroom exercises in each day-long workshop, and one thing really stood out for me this week. When workshop attendees tried their hand at grouping data (represented by a deck of cards with verb + noun labels on them) by affinity, things sometimes fell apart in two different ways.

The first part of the problem was because the data I gave them to group has to do with training for marathons, which, to my chagrin, is not widespread in Australia. By the last workshop, I managed to alleviate misinterpretations of the data by explaining what it all meant up front. However, the folks in the Canberra workshop really struggled with marathoning concepts. (Sorry for that!) Read More

atomic tasks vs. tasks — the explanation

First the small print: I use the archaic term “task” to mean any behavior or motivator or reasoning that a person mentions. “Task” is limited in definition, but it’s simpler to say than any other combination of words that I actually mean, like “Behavior, Belief, and Emotion.” Just wanted to point this out …

During combing, I always use two levels of task: Atomic Task and Task. In spreadsheet format, this means I have two task columns. The reason for the two levels is so that if multiple voices blend together to say basically the same thing, then I can keep all the quotes from the multiple voices, but have only one Task box in the Tower. The reason I do this voice blending into one task is so that I can avoid having too many really similar tasks in one tower. I want to make each tower as clear, but concise (small), as possible. Read More

pay close attention to the words you use in labels

The words in the labels will make or break the mental model. Here is some advice to bear in mind.

First, start each label with a clear, present tense verb. I often see things like “worried” and “manager” and “needed” as the first word in mental model labels. Ix-nay. Verbs have power. Use them.

Second, always use the personal pronoun “I” in your labels. Don’t use “she” or “he” because that distances the reader.

Third, avoid compound labels (coming from compound quotes). When reviewing people’s work, I frequently pull apart several quotes and made them into two or three separate rows in the spreadsheet (or separate stickies on the wall), each with a separate label expressing a separate thing. Example: “Communicate with friends about news, vacation, social events” becomes three different tasks: “Share latest industry news with friends,” “Tell friends my vacation plans,” and “Chat about upcoming social events with friends.” See how the verb is more concise and powerful than the more academic-sounding “communicate?”

With these three points in mind, go through your mental model right now and make corrections. I guarantee the result will be stronger.

towers with only a single task

Frequently, you may find yourself with a task box in your mental model that does not belong to any of the other towers in a mental space. This task box becomes a tower of it’s own, with just the one task box in it. Although I’ve said that the height of the tower is not significant, you have a special situation when there is just one voice represented by that task box and tower. If only one voice makes up the tower, treat that tower as a hypothesis. “Only one person mentioned this, and theoretically other people will mention this if we interview another 20 people.” The tower is still a valid tower because you expect other voices to join the singleton, should you gather more data. If you really don’t think other people would mention this item if you interview another 20 people, then remove that task box and tower from the mental model, as it is too unique to be significant.

Remember that the model is not an absolutely complete picture of people’s behavior. The model is a sketch of their behavior, where the mental spaces are pretty reliably represented, but not all the tasks necessarily appear in the towers. As time goes on and you have a chance to collect more data, you will be able to add it to existing mental spaces and towers.

what do I do with vague stuff I combed from the interview?

Are you in the middle of grouping the behaviors, beliefs, and reactions you found in the interviews? Having difficulty deciding what to do with a few of the opaque ideas? Here are some general guidelines that I follow if an idea is:

  • Too Vague: I try to re-define it, getting at the root and giving it a zinger of a verb. There’s usually something there that I sensed when I combed it out of the interview.
  • Redundant: If it’s an atomic task that’s redundant with another atomic task from the same person, then I merge them together in one cell, or just delete the redundant one. If the redundancy is with an atomic task from another person, then I group them together as a task.
  • Not Relevant: First I try to see if there’s a root in the quote that would be in scope. If not, then I delete it. I know my scope statement pretty thoroughly by now.

And yes, I just delete the extra ideas, rather than keeping them around in a parking lot to bother me and take up time later. This way I don’t have to explain why they exist to the client/boss, and why I am ignoring them. The deleted ideas are just the result of my sometimes over-zealous combing.

project timeline – a pictorial depiction of making a mental model

I get to work with lots of teams at wildly different organizations in the course of my practice. It never fails to impress me that the people on these teams are brilliant, driven, humorous, helpful, and plain great to be around. I am in the lucky position of being able to learn just as much from these people as they learn from me. So it didn’t surprise me that one of these people, Steven Dean, put together the most gorgeous timeline for a mental model project that I have ever seen. It comes complete with little images of deliverables from my book. I see it as a fantastic way to explain to someone how the project will work, and how all the pieces feed into each other. And now you can see it, too!

thumbnail of project plan PDF

mid-interview misunderstandings

In the book, I talk a little bit about the idea of asking business folks and product managers to join me for the interviews. The idea is to involve them in hearing the customer’s stories and also to get their direction if I’m exploring a topic that is new to me. Yes, sometimes the interviews are about chemistry or engineering, so I need a little coaching from people who live and breathe those subjects.

At the Agile 2008 conference a few weeks ago, Nick Gassman from British Airways came up to me to chat about his mental model project. Later he wrote to me with a suggestion about involving business and product folks in the interviews. Here’s what he said: Read More

short and sweet research phase

I’ve finished writing my slides for my three hour workshop at Agile08. The theme behind the slides is making mental models fit within an Agile sprint. Some people’s sprints are two weeks long. Other people’s sprints are 6 weeks long. It varies. If you are living in the land of the shorter sprints, though, I can see how you’d think, “There is NO time for this mental model stuff. It sounds nice, but I’ve got deadlines to hit.”

Luckily, a mental model is simply a diagram–a way of aligning understandings about the customer and the business. The amount of work that goes into the diagram doesn’t have to take months. You could sketch the diagram in an afternoon based on what’s in your head already. At the beginning of many of the workshops I teach, I ask attendees to sketch a model of movie goers in 10 minutes. It’s more than enough time, and usually the models contain many of the same mental spaces as the model I create from research interviews.

Read More

below the line – aligning other things

In my book, I talk about the bottom half of mental models as containing the ways in which your organization supports people doing the things in each of the towers. I have also mentioned aligning your competitor’s services below the line, too, just to see how you can be different from them. Two weeks ago at the MX Conference in San Francisco, Secil Watson, SVP at Wells Fargo, mentioned something in her presentation about tracking customer satisfaction. You could, indeed, mark how well each thing you do serves your customers, according to the average satisfaction rating that customers assign it. This might be a nice way to “decorate” the boxes below the line so you can pick out areas that need help more easily. Thank you, Secil, for a great idea!