What does it mean to be user-centred?

The term ‘user-centred design’ is most commonly used in relation to web design, but I think it’s a concept that could be applied to every presentation that you make, and every document that you write.

In everyday use, user-centred design is about meeting the needs of users. This means designing a website that is easy to navigate and where you can actually find what you are looking for. Similarly, a product that is designed with the user in mind will have the following features:

  • The buttons (or controls) will be in a sensible place and be the right size for your fingers to operate
  • The operating instructions will be clear and logical
  • The product will do what you expect it to do
  • It will make you feel satisfied (maybe even happy) when you use it

In his book ‘The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman makes the point that designers need to understand how people think before they can design products that people will find useful. This means taking the time to think about their view of the world and their mental models of how things work.

Reports and presentations are no different.

They are often written from the point of view of the writer and are not really intended for the audience or the reader. Far too often, no context is provided, or alternatively a whole lot of irrelevant information is provided. The worst offenders are people who include their organisational charts in presentations.

English: Organisational chart produced by the ...
English: Organisational chart produced by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to describe the functioning of the United Nations system of human rights bodies. A form of public information material designed primarily to inform the public about United Nations activities (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An organisational chart is rarely of interest to your audience, unless the people in the audience actually appear on the chart. For external audiences, please feel free to skip the org chart, in fact, feel free to leave out any information that is not actually of interest to your audience.

When you are writing or developing a document that is meant to be informative, have a big think about what would actually be of interest to your audience and include that. If you feel you must tell people about how your organisation works, make sure that you tell them why this might impact on them. For example, if you have a customer service officer in every office across the state, this could enable you to have a good understanding of local issues that might affect your customers.

Make sure your information is clear and that your points flow logically from one to another. I read a lot of reports which are okay as drafts, but the content really needs editing and re-arranging. I see a lot of presentations where the author has clearly had an information dump, straight from their brain into the slides. It would be much better to sit down with a piece of paper and work out what it is that your audience might want to know and start with that. People are generally interested in anything that impacts on their wealth, health and happiness, so that would be a good place to start.

If you design your information with the user in mind, you will have a satisfied and happy audience.

Try it and let me know how it works out. I’d love to hear from you.




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Once I had a secret love – content strategy and me

I’ve been wanting to write about content strategy for a while now, but I’ve been put off by not knowing how to make it relevant to the readers of this blog (that’s you). It struck me that my desire to provide material that is relevant, interesting and informative is exactly the problem that having a content strategy is meant to solve. Let me explain…

Content strategy is about trying to develop a coherent package of information for your audience. It’s about planning and managing information. I think of it as information wrangling, with the audience in mind. The term content strategy is most commonly used in relation to website development and was coined by Rachel Lovinger. Lots of people think that content strategy is just a new term for having an editorial policy, but it’s much more than that.

The role of the content strategist is to develop material that is readable, understandable, findable, useable and able to be shared. This requires a deep understanding of what people want and need to know, and how people consume information. These days, anyone who develops information needs to appreciate that if the audience finds the material useful, they will probably want to share it with other people. You need to make it easy for people to do this. On a website, this involves using sharing buttons, such as the ones at the bottom of this page. For bigger companies, it means making information downloadable and accessible.

Foremost, it requires you to develop material that is readable and understandable.

So how does this relate to the work you do on an everyday basis? The more I read about content strategy, the more it appeals to me. When I look at overcrowded documents, or cluttered websites, I think about how much better they would be if only someone stopped to think about who would be reading the document, who would be visiting the website and what do they want to know? Imagine if you could produce presentations that were clear and relevant, and really focussed on the audience – wouldn’t that be great?

So next time you are asked to write a report or develop a presentation, ask yourself:

  • who is this for? 
  • what might their interests be? 
  • what do they need to know?
  • how might they want to share this information?

This leads me to the dilemma I outlined at the beginning of this post – how do I know what is relevant, interesting and informative for you? Without some feedback from you, I’m really only guessing, so feel free to ask a question or share an idea. I’ve love to provide more of what you are interested in, so do let me know.

What we have here is a failure to communicate

English: Luis Javier Rodriguez Lopez, done for...
English: Luis Javier Rodriguez Lopez, done for wikipedia, might be found at my webpage in a future; http://www.coroflot.com/yupi666 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Early in my career as a teacher someone once told me that if my students didn’t understand what I was telling them then I should accept some of the responsibility for this. I have never forgotten this advice, even though it doesn’t stop me from being frustrated when I can’t seem to get my point across.

It’s easy enough to blame other people for their failure to understand what you are saying, it’s much harder to stop and reflect on what is causing the problem. Maybe it’s you?

I know that sometimes I am not very clear. Without wanting to make excuses, there are a lot of reasons that this can happen. Here are a few:

1. You’re not really clear what your point is. (I know I have talked about this before, but honestly it is a really common cause of miscommunication). It’s not so much that you are confused, it may be because you haven’t had a chance to really think through your point of view so you’re not really sure where you stand on the issue. If this happens, consider asking people to come back later when you have had a chance to think. This is actually quite flattering to the other person. Giving yourself a chance to think before you talk will give them a more considered and thoughtful response, and it will certainly stop you from sounding garbled.

2. Wrong time and place. Choosing your moment carefully. If you have something really important to say then you need to make sure that the person receiving the information is in a receptive frame of mind. Try to reduce distractions so that you have as much of their attention as you can.

3. Avoid jargon and buzzwords. There is a lot of evidence to say that if you use jargon and buzzwords, people just switch off. You might as well be talking to a brick wall.

4. Try and make your message relevant to the other person. People are basically interested in themselves so if you can frame your message in a way that relates to their interests and experiences they will be more engaged and more likely to listen to what you have to say.

5. Lay out the context and relay your information in an orderly fashion. I had an experience with this yesterday. I went to a meeting with a colleague who had an idea to sell me. He launched into the details without giving me any context or background for his ideas. He was well and truly up to speed with his proposal, but he didn’t bother to convey this to me and I was soon lost and confused. Eventually I just stopped listening. Spending a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting explaining the content and background (briefly) ensures that everyone in the room is at the same point and can move forward together. Try to avoid leaving people behind or you will lose them.

These are just some simple ideas that are worth are try. Next time you are trying to explain something important or complex or both, try to control the time and place that the conversation is going to happen. Be as well prepared as possible and reduce the number of external distractions for your audience. Give your audience a brief overview of the issue and the context so that know what you are talking about and above all, use simple clear language.

Let me know if you have any successes (or failures). I’d love to hear from you.