The Information Needs of the Indoctrinated Audience

By Deane Barker

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:

  • Customers staying updated on a product they own
  • Citizens wanting to know about government issues affecting them
  • Enthusiasts wanting the latest news on their favorite band/author/video game
  • Employees interacting with their intranet
  • Congregants wanting to know about issues and events occurring at their church
  • Parents of students wanting to know about events at their children’s school

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.

  • If the updates are about a project I’m managing, I may want to know every last thing, bar none.
  • If the updates are about my son’s soccer team, I may just want to know the things that affect me, like when the schedule is released or if game times change.
  • If the updates are about a topic I’m just mildly interested in, I may just want some time period summary – like a monthly digest – that covers the high points. (In this situation, the recipient perhaps doesn’t need to be updated about anything, but they just don’t want to lose a connection with the source. So the update becomes something like a bookmark that reminds you of its presence every once in a while. A tickler, essentially.)

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:

  • The “news” section on your website
  • Your RSS feed
  • Updates from your Facebook page
  • Your Tweet stream
  • Email newsletters
  • LinkedIn updates
  • SMS messages

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:

  • What larger scale issue or situation does this update fit into? What project or ongoing concern does it address?
  • Does this update relate to me in any way? Is it about people external to me, or is it about me directly, or some direct action I have taken?
  • Does this update give me any new information? Does it expand my knowledge about a larger situation in any way? Or is this something I already know?
  • How important is this update? Is it critical, or merely informational?
  • Do I need to acknowledge this update in some way, to prove to someone that I reviewed it?
  • Does this update require me to take any action? Does it inspire me to take any action? Does it require me to alter any current course of action?
  • Does someone else need to take action based on this update? Do I need to share or expand on this with anyone, in the form of a private communication or public comment?
  • What do I need to do with this update? Can I discard it? Is this something I’ll need to refer to later? Is it something I want to revisit later for some reason? If so, how do I queue this for follow up?

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:

  • A method of multi-channel publishing so updates that meet the audience where they’re at. You can’t trust them to come to you. Why would they? You’re pushing Unknown Unknowns at them, so they have no way to know that something is awaiting consumption. You have to find a way to push information at them.
  • A method of designating the format and frequency of updates. Individual or digest? What frequency? The answers here are highly contextual, based on the user and their connection to the topic. If a user can only get a firehose of individual updates, they will often just abandon rather than get overwhelmed. (See: What an RSS Purge Taught Me About How I Consume Information.)
  • A commitment to clear and concise writing, specifically headline writing. We need to help the user put this information into context as quickly as possible, or, if the update does not relate to them, discard it. Remember: a quick and justified discard of an update should be seen as a clear win.
  • A consistent methodology of information architecture which allows users to filter updates effectively. Users should be be able to subscribe to various topics, and have a method of “up-sizing” or “down-sizing” their designated areas of interest. They need to be able to designate branches on your taxonomy as areas of interest and capture information in those branches.
  • A commitment to accurate categorization of updates by severity. Some information may be critical, and some may be just informational. There needs to be a way to convey this to users as quickly and effectively as possible.
  • Strong calls to action so it’s clear when action is needed or expected. When a user needs to do something, there should be no ambiguity around that point. Some updates might require acknowledgment – the user has to check a box or type their name or password to confirm they have consume this item.
  • A method for users to share or notify others about updates. Users should be able to send an update to someone else with as little effort as possible. The user themselves is the ultimate filter – they likely know better than you who needs to see this update. Give them a way to easily act on that knowledge.
  • A method for users to file an item away for future action. Users should be able to say “show me this again in X days,” “add this to my calendar,” “email this to me.” David Allen discusses collecting points extensive in “Getting Things Done.” These are structure in which action items “collect.” You need to honor your users’ internal filing mechanisms by helping them add an update to their various collections.

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 354 items.

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