September 2019

The Sorting Hat

CIDMIconNewsletter Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services

My children are both fans of the Harry Potter series, and to be honest, I like it, too. My husband read the entire series aloud to our family, turning a common practice into a near theatrical experience complete with voices to shame even the most experienced of audiobook readers. We have done the midnight book releases, the midnight movie premieres, the trips to Universal Studios to live the magic for ourselves, and have taken the obligatory tourist pictures at King’s Cross Station in London. I’ve even one-upped my children in going on the studio tour just outside London to see props, costumes, and set pieces from the movies all contained in one condensed area. It’s overwhelming, while at the same time really, really cool.

Having sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, the series is the best-selling book-series in history (roughly one in every 15 people in the world owns a Harry Potter book). It is among the most translated literary works (80 languages as of June 2017). The last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is the fastest selling book of fiction of all time, with over 15 million copies sold within 24 hours of its release.[1]

Although the first Harry Potter book was published over twenty years ago in 1997, the interest in the books and the movies remains strong. Lines for the latest Harry Potter roller coaster (Hagrid’s Motorbike) at Universal Studios in Florida reportedly exceeded 10 hours when it opened in June. In addition to visiting the amusement parks, you can also attend Harry Potter conventions, escape from Harry Potter-themed escape rooms, attend “wizarding” schools in various castles across Europe, and experience the two-night stage show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (something I’ve recently been investigating because it opens in San Francisco next month).

Because of its immense popularity, many books, articles, and blogs have been written about the lessons to be learned from Harry Potter. Many address everyday life lessons, such as:

  • Choose your friends wisely.
  • Face your fears.
  • If you need help, ask for it.
  • It’s OK to be a misfit.
  • Family isn’t defined by blood.
  • Know-it-alls are useful to have on your side.
  • We can’t change our past, but we can change our future.

All good advice to be sure. In addition, many industries have also found specific inspiration from Harry Potter:

In industries closer to home, I have enjoyed the Lessons Learned: What Harry Potter Professors Teach Us about Instructional Design sessions led by Jamye Sagan (@gimli_the_kitty) at the last two STC conferences, and I recently found a nice introductory article on information architecture by Leow Hou Teng, Harry Potter and Information Architecture: UX Basics. In the latter article, the author draws parallels between navigating Hogwarts and navigating a web site; between fantastical tools like summoning charms, the Marauder’s Map, and the Sorting Hat and our less imaginary tool of search engine optimization.

Inspired by all these Harry Potter lessons, I, too, looked to the books for insights on our profession, and like Mr. Teng, I found my attention drawn to the Sorting Hat. Mr. Teng emphasizes the hat’s role in assigning students to their houses to illustrate his points about the need for a well-defined taxonomy. While I completely agree that the four houses are a cornerstone of the Harry Potter taxonomy, I believe there’s a more fundamental lesson to be learned from the Sorting Hat: the sorting process and the very need for students to go through it clearly illustrates why we as technical communicators must create user personas and use them as a guide for the content we include, the tone and style we take, the delivery mechanisms we employ, and even the way we define quality.

Every student must be sorted

Although it took a while for her to “discover” the Sorting Hat, Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, explains on that she knew from early on that there would be four houses at Hogwarts, each with very different qualities, and that all students would somehow be sorted into these houses upon arrival. There’s an important reason for this sorting. Looking beyond the obvious literary reasons for such sorting and setting aside the fact that Hogwarts is a fictional school, sorting students according to a set of distinguishing characteristics has significant merit for ensuring that each gets the intellectual and social stimuli to succeed. While many students in our real public schools are randomly sorted into required classes based solely on class size and schedule, Hogwarts students are sorted according to their core values and other characteristics that give important information to their teachers about how to most effectively reach them. Knowing they are addressing ambitious Slytherins rather than knowledge-driven Ravenclaws in a class, for example, helps teachers to adjust their language, demeanor, and presentation to appeal to their students’ cunning and resourcefulness, instead of relying on the students’ inherent intellect and wit. In the same way, knowing the motivations, fears, and skills of our audience allows us to tailor our content and presentation to meet their needs and expectations. We write better when we have well-defined personas and understand how their characteristics impact the way they consume and process information.

The Sorting Hat has well-defined criteria

Sorting at Hogwarts is not random, but based on very clear characteristics, which are summarized by the Sorting Hat itself in the first book when it is first encountered:

“You might belong in Gryffindor,
Where dwell brave of heart,
Their daring, nerve, and chivalry
Set Gryffindors apart;
You might belong in Hufflepuff,
Where they are just and loyal,
Those patient Hufflepuffs are true
And unafraid of toil;
Or yet wise old Ravenclaw,
If you’ve a ready mind,
Where those of wit and learning,
Will always find their kind;
Or perhaps in Slytherin
You’ll make your real friends,
Those cunning folk use any means
To achieve their ends.”[2]

Everyone in the wizarding community understands the underlying values of each Hogwarts house and knows what it means to be counted a Gryffindor as opposed to a Hufflepuff. The distinguishing characteristics between houses are clear and distinct, and an immediate picture comes to mind when you are told a character is part of a certain house.

The same should be true of our user personas. They must be vivid and detailed, leaving no question in any writer’s mind regarding the needs and behaviors of the person they are writing for. Are you writing content for a busy executive? Better know immediately what percentage of time that person is on the road and reliant on information being delivered via cell phone. Better be aware of how much time will that person give the documentation before a) being interrupted by something else or b) delegating the issue to someone else.

It’s important to note at the same time, however, that characteristics irrelevant for sorting — such as the fact that Salazar Slytherin was a parseltongue or that Helga Hufflepuff was an accomplished cook — do not cloud the Sorting Hat’s judgment. All Slytherins cannot speak with serpents, nor all Hufflepuffs prepare a splendid feast, and so these qualities do not factor into the sorting process. While perhaps interesting details, and certainly useful to know at critical junctures in the books, such details would confuse and potentially hinder the sorting, causing unnecessary effort to sort through those details to find the critical information needed to determine the appropriate place for each student.

Likewise the personas we develop, detailed as they must be, can go too far. The traits we choose to highlight must be actionable. They must matter to our final deliverable, impact the approach we take. If facts, no matter how true, make no difference; if preferences are shared across all users; if behaviors have no influence on documentation, we must consider carefully their place in our personas.

The Sorting Hat’s criteria are based on “real” people

I feel compelled to reassure you that I do know that Hogwarts characters aren’t real. However, within the context of the book, the sorting criteria spouted by the Sorting Hat are based on the characteristics exhibited by the four school founders. These aren’t random guesses by the Sorting Hat or even the result of long discussions with other magical objects about their opinions. Instead, the characteristics come from the observed personalities of historical characters and reflect the qualities that each valued most (which the Sorting Hat explains in a rather long diatribe that I won’t repeat here, but that you can find in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix).

The Sorting Hat sets an example for conducting user research and basing our personas and resulting actions on real-life observations. It’s not the characteristics that we can all agree on about our fictional users, but what we actually observe our users doing; not talking amongst ourselves about our perceptions of the audience, but listening to what they say and acknowledge about themselves and their needs.

The Sorting Hat considers the wishes of the student

While it might seem that the Sorting Hat has an advantage in being able to read the mind of its wearer to divine true intent, it also considers the wishes of the student as well. While waiting for the final verdict, the student hears the hat reasoning through the possibilities, and during that time, can make a plea for a specific house. Harry Potter himself does this, begging for any house but Slytherin.

To me, the hat’s actions perfectly underscore the importance of user feedback. The hat may think it knows what is best for the student based on the data it receives; however, it also recognizes that the student’s wishes also factor into how that student will behave. If the student truly feels Gryffindor is the right house, he or she may operate outside of their true inner nature to prove a point. Although all evidence might point to a specific design direction in our content, we must consider the final verdict from the audience. We must be prepared to accept that what should work does not work in the current situation, and we must be ready and willing to change our approach despite what our persona data and history tell us.

Some students are not easily sorted

Typically, the Sorting Hat is able to make its determination quickly, and almost always in less than five minutes. However, rarely, perhaps once every fifty years, a “hatstall” occurs when the hat encounters a personality that is truly a balanced combination of different house qualities. tells us that the hat agonized for five and half minutes over whether to place Minerva McGonagall into Ravenclaw or Gryffindor. Similarly, it had a long deliberation about where to put Peter Pettigrew, ultimately choosing Gryffindor over Slytherin, which in retrospect seems to have been the wrong choice (although evidently the hat is quite stubborn and refuses to accept it might have made a mistake).

The lesson here is that there will always be outliers, people who don’t fit the personas you’ve outlined, people who may even end up unhappy with the design choices you make. However, it’s important to remember that you aren’t designing for these edge cases. If the personas you create work for the majority of your audience, let the others go. Ultimately, that’s why you have technical support — to address those exceptions, the ones that don’t conform to the norm you’ve observed and validated.

Students aren’t limited by their defining persona

Although every student is sorted into a house based on their overarching values and characteristics, that’s not to say that each doesn’t have some traits common to the other houses; they simply aren’t predominant in most situations. However, there are occasions where these subservient traits rise to the forefront. Much of the entire series relies on Gryffindor Hermione Granger demonstrating the Ravenclaw propensity towards learning. Cedric Diggory, a Hufflepuff, highlights his core values of loyalty and friendship when he helps Harry solve the riddle of the Golden Egg in the Triwizard’s tournament, but during that tournament, Cedric also proves that he is not lacking the Gryffindor values of courage and daring or the Slytherin value of ambition.

The reality is that a persona is a snapshot in time. It does not consider that user behavior may change when confronted with special circumstances or in specific situations. For this reason, many companies are creating customer journey maps in conjunction with their personas. A journey map is the technical communicator’s Harry Potter novel — it tells the story of every major experience your customer may have throughout their engagement and how their goals, needs, and pain points change at each junction. It enables you to improve your customer’s experience by adjusting to the changes each makes during a (hopefully) long-term relationship with your company.

Help will always be given to those who ask

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Professor Dumbledore encourages an eavesdropping Harry that even though Dumbledore himself is being (temporarily) forced out of Hogwarts “You will find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” Such help is provided within this book and later in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows through the Sorting Hat. In Chamber of Secrets, Gryffindor’s sword materializes in the hat so Harry can save Ginny Weasley from a Basilisk. In Deathly Hallows, the Sorting Hat once again is the bearer of Gryffindor’s sword, this time to Neville Longbottom who uses it to destroy the last remaining Horcrux, Voldemort’s snake, Nagini.  In both cases, recipients were Gryffindor and the object the hat brings is one with deep meaning to a Gryffindor. Presumably, although we are never given an example, were it called upon by a student of another house, the hat would bring an object more appropriate for that person’s skills and background.

Help comes to your users when they ask. If you know who’s asking, you can bring what is most needed in that situation for that specific user. Knowing how users want to approach the problem, understanding the response they will have to what you bring, ensures they leave victorious — with the tools needed to confront whatever monster task they are confronting.

The Sorting Hat is sure of itself

In its songs before each sorting ceremony, the Sorting Hat toots its own horn, proclaiming in the first book:

 “Oh you may not think I’m pretty,
But don’t judge on what you see,
I’ll eat myself if you can find
A smarter hat than me.”

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it also declares that it had “never yet been wrong”. Whether or not the students (or the readers and fans) agree with its declaration, is irrelevant. It stands behind the decisions it has made, and so it must be with you. Have confidence in the decisions you make: the “houses” you define and the approaches you take as a result. As we see with Harry Potter, while some sortings may seem questionable, it all works out in the end! CIDMIconNewsletter

[2] Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter 7.