Communication gravitates around the audience. Without a solid understanding of the audience, you are not communicating – you are merely dropping information into a vacant area and hoping for the best.*
It’s clear that understanding your audience is essential when designing and writing information products – websites, brochures, instruction guides, policies, reports, etc.
A key principle is to understand who will be using the product you are designing and what they will use it for. Talk with your audience to find out their concerns and what is important to them. Find out how they like to receive information – words, pictures or some combination. Watch them in action to learn how they will use the product to achieve their goals.
You also need to understand the environment they will be using the product in. Will they use it in the office or outside, will they be able to give their full attention to the product or will they be interrupted frequently?
After talking and observing, an effective way to use your knowledge is to create a handful of personas – fictional people that bring together the behaviours, goals, skills, attitudes and environment of the different groups of users. Then describe how this fictional person will use the product you are developing.
For example, suppose you are developing a website for an advanced software company. You might create three personas to guide your design decisions:
Tom – the CEO of a large engineering firm. Tom is always busy and doesn’t enjoy reading much. He is visiting your site in response to a mail-out and wants to quickly find out how your software could help him.
Dick – an IT administrator of a major bank. Dick wants to download the latest version of the software and check the suitability of some add-ons his staff have requested.
Harry – a product manager with a global IT vendor landed on your site through a search engine. He is always looking for products he can add to his suite, but must be convinced your company is rock solid.
Picture each of these potential users in your mind as you design your site. Make sure each will be able to quickly find the information they need to achieve their goals.
Create a few personas before building your next information product. Create a description of each person and how they will use your product. Test your ideas against the information needs of these people.
* From Melcrum Publishing, How to Communicate Business Strategy to Employees.