Beware the User Agenda


October 2001

Beware the User Agenda

CIDMIconNewsletter Susan Harkus, Information Architect, Ion Global Australia

A Web site is launched, giving customers alternative access to a supplier’s services. No more long waits in agency or phone queues. The supplier is confident. The match between user need (get service without waiting) and the business strategy seems perfect.

Months later, the business is heavily promoting the Web site in offline activities, including promotions every 30 seconds while customers wait for services on the phone. If you combine the implications of massive offline promotions and anecdotal evidence from colleagues and friends about site activity, there is little to encourage confidence that the Web-based business arm is meeting target performance levels.

Why? Why doesn’t the match between a business strategy and a perceived user need enable the same predictable level of success on the Internet as it does in offline business? What is the wild card that exposes Web-based business to failure?

Compare in-store and online shopping. Figures vary about the exact percentage, but no one denies that the majority of online shoppers abandon their shopping cart before completing their purchase. In contrast, very few in-store transactions are abandoned at the last minute.

There is no need to explore the reasons for the difference in behavior of offline and online shoppers. Look rather at the fact of different behaviors. What has the Internet unleashed that is held in check when customers consider and execute purchases in-store?

Quite simply it’s the user agenda: that determination to decide myself what is of value to me and to choose myself the way I want to access services-that realization that I have the power to reject your product and service right up to the last moment of commitment.

Challenging Developers of Online Documentation and Training

As technical communicators, we know the user agenda well, though many of us have struggled to ignore it.

In 1992, I tracked the gradual but total rejection of the proposal to use an online Help format to deliver an innovative software development methodology. Users were not prepared to read methodology-related content online.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, I listened to an engineer angrily complaining about a C++ multimedia self-study that wouldn’t let him study just one knowledge area. The program “demanded” that he complete every part of the course. He just walked away.

In 1998, I watched colleague after colleague make a mindless, continue-button progression through online information about the new corporate performance evaluation program so that they could get to the point where they could do what they wanted to do: set up their individual performance objectives. The users found a way to make nonsense of the designers’ intent to force employees to review propaganda about the new program: they just paged past the content that did not interest them.

The user agenda lurks behind each anecdote. It is always an element of human experience, but its impact increases exponentially when users are by themselves in full control.

The same professionals who will sit through a classroom course and have their learning experience managed by a presenter will demand control in self-paced learning. Users will satisfy their agenda or, as did the software engineer in the mid-1990s, angrily turn off the program and walk away.

John Carroll’s research in the late 1980s and early 1990s discovered the significance of the user agenda for online performance support. Carroll’s research explored how users want to learn and are determined to learn. “Jumping the gun can be seen as mere impulsiveness or disorganization, as an impatience for reading through manuals and plodding through exercises. And it surely is at least this. But if we pursue the underlying causes, jumping the gun can be seen as a desperate effort to inject meaning into a training experience.”1

John Carroll’s users were into “sense-making.” When the organization of learning confronted user determination to make sense of what they were doing, sense-making triumphed.

The Lurking Agenda

And how did technical communicators and training developers react to a user agenda movement like minimalism? Most found reasons to ignore its findings and implications despite the fact that leading communication and usability specialists praised the insights of Carroll’s early research. Indeed, a very distinguished group of industry representatives contributed to the minimalist sequel, Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel.2 The group included two great friends of technical communication in Australia: John Brockmann and JoAnn Hackos.

At the Australasian Online Documentation conference in Sydney in 1999, Marsha Durham3 was presenting guidelines for writing online when she commented lightly that users probably wouldn’t read the online documentation anyway. Her aside dropped like a bombshell. The questions that followed focused entirely on how we, as writers, “get our users to read what we write.”

Why were conference attendees so unexpectedly alarmed? From the initial Help implementations, technical communicators had witnessed user resistance to online information and user resentment that `Help’ promised much but gave little.

More important, were attendees asking the right question? Does the very question “how do we get our users to…?” reveal a mistaken belief in our “power”? What is our response to user behavior that declares implicitly “I won’t try again if I don’t get an answer the first time” or “Don’t tell me what you want me to know, tell me what I want to know.” What is our response to users and readers who know their power and demand value?

In his 1997 keyword article, Michael Olsson warned technical communicators about the limits of the writer’s power. We may think that we have total control over the construction of the user’s knowledge but “the author’s serious speech act is only one factor in the reader’s construction of knowledge. The readers’ discursive environment will have a major (indeed a primary) impact on how they interpret the author’s work.”4

Has online information shifted the power balance? Not really. Users accessing online information and online products and services have simply shown that the illusion of author or supplier power can no longer be sustained.

To Return to the Internet

I would claim that we, as technical communicators, have reluctantly acknowledged the changed reader behavior that challenges our online documentation and training products, but at least we accept that user behavior did change when we started to deliver products online.

Somehow what we have learned has failed to impact the world of Internet solutions.

I recently listened to a marketing discussion that matched user need to the supplier’s online business strategy. As marketing specialists, the participants knew how to do research to identify user need, and they knew how to guide clients to tune their business strategy to meet the needs identified. For the marketing specialists, a good match of need and strategy meant a good solution.

Right? Wrong! User need is not enough. The Internet wild card is the user agenda. “What’s in it for me?” “How accessible is this product or service?” “Why is it better than my offline options?” “I don’t have to make your Web site viable.”

The mathematics seem so simple. Explore the user agenda, build real user value into your online offering, and you succeed. Assume that customers will automatically line up for your services, and you fail.

An online equivalent to an offline product or service is not enough. Equivalence is the minimum requirement and will never be a driver if the offline offering is satisfactory and comfortable. What successful Internet sites prove is that businesses need to define differentiating attributes for online products and services, not just see the Internet as an “alternative” business channel.

Like the developers of the corporate performance evaluation training, we technical communicators closed our eyes and attempted to ignore the user agenda as we pressed ahead with our online deliverables. Our awakening has been awkward and uncomfortable… and is unfinished.

But… how long will it be before the world recognizes the lurking user agenda?

1 J.M. Carroll, 1990. The Nurnberg Funnel: Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skill, p.76.
2 J.M. Carroll, ed. 1998. Minimalism beyond the Nurnberg Funnel. Cambridge: MA: MIT Press.
3 Marsha Durham. 1999. Writing Techniques for Paper and Online, Australasian Online Documentation Conference, March 22-23, Sydney, Australia.
4 Michael Olsson. 1997. Foucault: Approaches to Understanding the Text in Context. keyword. 7 (3).

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