Users, The Unknown Race

Vesa Purho
Research Analyst, Information Design, Nokia Networks

Why is it so hard to get technical communicators to analyse their users? I beg pardon from all those who do because I don’t mean that nobody does user analysis, but there are a lot of those who don’t. Is it because you don’t know how to analyse your users? There are many good books available that can give you advice (for example, User and Task Analysis for Interface Design by JoAnn Hackos and Janice Redish), and you can also attend courses to learn the basics. However, user analysis is, in my opinion, learned by doing. Naturally, you need the basic skills, but you won’t be good at user analysis unless you do it.

The first analysis will be the most difficult. And user analysis is hard work, no mistake about that. When I created templates for user profiles, I got comments like “It will be difficult to find out this information.” My reply to that is: “Yes, that is true. If filling out those templates would be as easy as just typing in the information, we would not need the templates because you would know your users already and no analysis would be needed.”

My advice is to start with small exercises. Create a user profile of yourself for a tool you are using and get a feeling of what kind of information you should include in the analysis. Think about what the author of the tool’s user guide or help system should know about you to write the information you need to use the tool. The same kind of information probably applies as well to the users of the products or services you document.

Perhaps you would like to analyse your users, but the effort and cost involved stop you. Is your management not allowing you to spend money and work hours to analyse your users? Have you talked to them in the language they best understand: cost savings, increased customer satisfaction, and so on? Many companies are applying the Balanced Scorecard approach to describe their business goals, and you could use the same approach. (For more information about the Balanced Scorecard, see the book review in the February 2001 issue of Best Practices or read the book, The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action by Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton.)

Briefly, here are some points you should take into account when applying the Balanced Scorecard for user analysis.

Financial Perspective

  • saving cost by not producing information that users don’t need
  • saving cost from decreased need for customer support as a result of documentation that better supports users

Customer Perspective

  • increased customer satisfaction because the documentation matches the users’ needs
  • possibility to offer customized content because you know the different user segments
  • customers work more efficiently because they don’t have to take the time to find the information or call your help desk
  • customers get more uniform information from different product lines because everyone has the same idea about what customers are like

Process Perspective

  • no more arguments between SMEs and writers on what the users actually need
  • writers write more efficiently because they have the user profiles helping them make decisions on what to include and what kind of writing style to use
  • customer feedback can be analysed more efficiently because you know the basis of your decisions

Learning and Growth Perspective

  • writers get to know the users of your products and can use that knowledge in many other places as well
  • writers are more motivated because they know that the information they produce is really useful for the users
  • writers are challenged to create more innovative solutions because they see how the users actually work and what would best suit their information needs

User analysis is essential in creating good information products. I think that even if the profile you create for the first time is wrong, it is still better than no profile at all. After all, writing down the information in your head does not make it worse. On the contrary, when you write the information down and have others comment on it, you will get valuable insight to correct the profile or fill in the possible gaps. Having all of the writers use the same profile is better than having them use different profiles. It is easier to analyse customer feedback and correct the profiles. When your basic assumptions are documented and used consistently, you can more easily identify what is wrong.

So go and create user profiles. Start small and build from there. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. You learn as you get more experience.

References

JoAnn T. Hackos
Janice C. Redish
User and Task Analysis for Interface Design
1998, New York, NY
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
ISBN 0-471-17831-4

Robert S. Kaplan
David P. Norton
The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action
1996, Boston, MA
Harvard Business School Press
ISBN 0-87584-651-3


This article is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion or practice of Nokia Networks.

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