Take an ethnographic approach to content design

Sometimes my worlds collide and I try to surf the seismic wave.

World A: Technical Writing

I’m part of technical communication team that agonizes over the usual stuff. Should we be using DITA to create reusable content? What’s the best way to localize our material for an international audience? How do we keep our videos up to date? How do we encourage our expert community to help each other? And, the m-dash—is it possible to overuse it?

Then there’s the big umbrella question. How do we design relevant, accurate, engaging content that both informs and delights our users?

World B: Qualitative research

When I’m not asking tech writerly questions, I obsess about the work practices of the ethnographers and other qualitative researchers who use our software. From my experience, they are scarily smart people who immerse themselves in a social context and use specialized techniques to decode befuddling phenomena. Ethnographers can take messy, unstructured data (like interviews, field notes and social media conversations) and turn them into useful, actionable insights—our software helps them to manage this process.

Here’s where the collision occurs and the surfing begins.

Ethnography and content design

Ethnographers are my audience but their ‘immersion’ techniques can also inform my role as a content designer. What do our users really need? How do they feel about learning the software? How do they behave when they’re using our content and how does this behaviour change as they move along the learning curve? What are their motives? What do they say to their friends or colleagues about it? What do they think other people would say about the resources? How do we walk a mile in their shoes?

The answers to these sorts of ethnographic questions can help us to create and deliver meaningful content.

Technical communicators and user experience experts may be down with the benefits of customer surveys, usability testing and listening to the hum of social media. What they are less sure of is how to analyze the results. Do we just catalogue the negative comments and rush to address them?

An ethnographer would probably say “put that spreadsheet down and look at what is really going on”. They would tell us to get over our preconceived notions and educated guesses. They would tell us to get close to the data and look for recurring themes, analyze the words that people use, make comparisons across different types of users and contexts. And then, with this kind of in-depth knowledge, move beyond addressing what users say they want.

“Design is about giving people what they need before they know they need it and doing so in a way that makes them think they asked for it.” Jonathan Salem Baskin (Global Brand Strategist)

For example, a user might say “we need a printed manual” but what they are longing for is a narrative or story—something often missing in modular help systems. Or, another user might complain that the software is too complicated but the real issue is that they are unsure about their goals. More conceptual direction and plenty of examples might help.

Of course, the data from this kind of ethnographic research can inform the design of the product as a whole. From how users navigate the interface to the way they learn, engage, master, and eventually evangelize—an ethnographic approach could help us understand our users’ motives and behaviours and get to grips with what really matters.

Sure, this idea requires time/money/resources (and one of those fashionable paradigm shifts), but we technical communicators are good at balancing priorities and riding the best waves all the way to shore.

This post was inspired by Michele’s Innovative Space: The Design-Driven Process: Why Is It Better than the Others?  Look out for the especially interesting video from some serious content design gurus.


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