The Information Needs of the Indoctrinated Audience

By Deane Barker • Posted on August 21, 2012

In any web project, the glamour audience that gets all the attention is the new audience – the previously unknown visitors that know little about you, and need to learn from scratch. We spend so much time on these people, making sure their information needs are handled.

The “other” audience often gets ignored. This is what I’m calling “the indoctrinated audience.” They’re the bookish little sister of the prom queen.

These are the people who are already familiar with you. They’ve spent time on your website or interacted with your organization in other ways. Your “About Us” and “Products” pages mean little to these people. They know all this.

Their information needs have shifted. They’ve caught the wave, so to speak, and are now riding it. At this point, they need a continual flow of information about your organization to keep on the crest of the wave.

Instead of being submerged in a massive pool of information and they just need a continuous trickle to keep them ahead of the curve.

These people are:

Note the possessives in those phrases: “their intranet,” “own,” “their favorite,” “their church.” There’s a sense of ownership here. These aren’t people completely on the outside of your organization. They don’t need to establish a connection to it – they already have that. Rather, they need to maintain this connection.

These audiences are past the “introduce me to the topic” stage. They have a base of information already, and this has given them a reason to stay in touch. Their primary goal now is receiving segmented information over a period of time which keeps them updated about a topic or organization.

The need for update frequency varies widely.

How do these scenarios affect how users want and need to consume information? This need is directly opposed to the user who knows nothing and needs to learn from scratch. Surely the way they consume and process this information must be quite different.

Last month, I wrote about rivers and trees of information. Things that an audience is going to go search for is “tree” information. Things that an audience needs to have pushed at them is “river” information

The indoctrinated audience is very much after the latter category. They’re not going to spend much time browsing your website (the “tree” content). They may need a piece of reference information at some point, but they largely have a “snapshot” in their heads, and what they really need to keep up-to-date on new developments (the “river” content).

This means that these people are best served by some serial stream of continuing updates. These updates are not introductory – they’d likely make no sense on their own. However, these updates build on information previously consumed and synthesized by this audience. They are another brick in the wall of a topic that the audience is following.

These streams take many forms:

What’s really interesting here is the processing of this information is likely quite different. When a visitor consumes the update, they are rapidly and subconsciously processing it in several ways.

Specifically, whether they realize it or not, they are asking:

All of these point are getting at a larger overall need: the need to put the update into context.

I become more and more convinced every day that humans need context. We have an intuitive need to fit smaller concepts into a larger framework. Given that an “update” is an inherently smaller piece, the driving desire of the recipient is to connect it to the Big Picture.

Context is everything with the indoctrinated audience.

Since their first exposure to your organization, they’ve been building a narrative, not unlike completing a jigsaw. At any given time, you have a nucleus of pieces that are already connected – this is what you know about a topic. Your update is a new jigsaw piece you’ve just picked up. What is always your first question? Does this piece fit anywhere in the current group you already have put together? Does this expand the current solution at all?

And so it goes with information updates. Whenever the indoctrinated audience ingests a Tweet, a blog post, a Facebook update, a news item, anything, their internal context engine kicks in and they mentally try to fit this into a larger context and course of action. Sometimes they can’t, so they put the puzzle piece down, but sometimes it fits somewhere, and it expands their narrative of the topic a bit more.

I’m planning on exploring this concept quite a bit over the next year, but at the moment, I believe that catering to this audience requires the following:

This is likely to be my primary focus of research over the next year. Anil Dash just wrote a fantastic post on the technical advantages of the same subject.

Stream-based content naturally flows across different devices and media, from tiny phones to tablets to giant desktop monitors, with an adaptivity that works naturally hand-in-hand with responsive design. [...] Streams of content can easily be read in friendly native apps on mobile platforms with the content flowing through simple APIs.

The technical challenges are quite simple (often even simpler than the “old” way), but the usability challenges are unique. More attention and research needs to be paid to this – what happens when 99% of the information your organization puts out is in rivers, not trees? There’s a good chance this is already happening.

I maintain it will fundamentally change how your information is created and architected.

This is item #80 in a sequence of 353 items.

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