20 year content strategy veteran, Sharon Burton. Sharon Burton consults about content strategy, content business issues, social media and managing post-sales customer experience issues.

Crafting information for your audience

Crafting information for your audience

Twice lately, I’ve been struck at an odd organization of information. I think this matters.

10,001 easy solutions to everyday problems

Like so many of us, I’m a sucker for solving household problems with regular stuff on hand. So when I saw this book at the local store, I bought it.

The book covers various household things like lemons and what you can use them for. Notice how awkward that sentence is? It’s because the first part of the book is structured around the household item, not the problem.

So, if you’re looking at salt, for example, wondering what you can do with it, there is an entire section all about that. But most of us are not looking at salt and thinking:

“I just don’t do enough with salt. I wish I knew more I could do.”

We drop an egg and wonder how to get that more easily off the floor (pour salt on the broken egg and it cleans up faster [page 42]).

Part 2 is smarter. It’s structured around activity groupings – but it’s less about ways to clean and more about ways to reuse things.An example TOC that shows information organized poorly

Medical Center signs

I was at my medical center for my every 2 year mammogram the other day. Because I don’t visit often, I couldn’t remember where they were located in the building. Helpfully, the medical center provides a large board right inside the door to help people like me.

Except it’s all organized by floor (they wouldn’t let me take a picture). Each floor is listed with everything on that floor. Which is great, if you are wondering what floor has what. But that’s not how we use that board – we want to know where Radiology is (Basement, it turns out). To find Radiology, I had to scan each floor to see if it was listed on that floor.

Better would be an alphabetical listing of department with the floor next to the name. Because we don’t look at the medical center building and wonder what departments are on the 7th floor. We want a specific department and want to go directly to that department.

Audience focused

The problems with both these examples is the content is organized backwards from how people use it. The content is accurate (as far as I know) but it’s not useful because it’s organized badly.

It needs to be reorganized with the information needs of the users in mind. Task-based to support the task at hand. Task-based doesn’t always mean steps. Sometimes, it means providing information in a way that supports the tasks people want to do. Such as listing offices alphabetically and not by floor.

Your thoughts?

What have you seen that was probably completely accurate but not useful information?

By Sharon Burton


  1. Sharon, you are correct! content needs to be effective that can be used easily by end-user. I liked the medical center example that you have mentioned here. It is good to have the department name written next to the floor name. However, each department would inturn contain various other sub-departments that might be difficult to include. Hence, mapping of related information together within specific category makes sense here. Taxonomy plays an important role in content classification and categorization. Taxonomy rules when applied to such classification is a very useful way of grouping categories and will be easily understandable to end users.

  2. Marc Gravez

    Sharon, I have one more comment and a question about your medical center example.

    Comment: An alphabetical listing of departments is certainly more useful than a listing by floor. But I think there’s more to consider. The department that does mammograms may be called “Radiology, “Imaging,” “Mammography,” or something else. The patient may know she needs a “breast exam” or “breast cancer screening,” but not know the term “mammogram.” She may have limited English fluency.

    That’s a lot of detail for a sign! To provide the optimal experience, a printed brochure available at the entrance may also be helpful.

    Question: Does your medical center use the Universal Symbols in Health Care on their signage (http://www.hablamosjuntos.org/signage/PDF/SymbolPoster_Sep10.pdf)?

    • Sharon Burton

      I completely agree with you. I had to learn that mammograms are done in Radiology and it was frustrating to learn. I thought there would be a department called Mammogram. There should be, as part of the Healthy Women thing so many medical clinics are focusing on. Or at least it should be listed that way on the board.

  3. Marc Gravez

    Hi Sharon, great post. Here’s another example.

    Unfortunately, every mass-transit website I’ve seen is organized based on the system (trains, buses, subways, etc) rather than the needs of possible riders. Daily commuters, local “occasional” riders, visitors, and so on need different information. These groups also have specific needs. For example, a visitor may also also want info about hotels or attractions to visit. So in addition to being much more useful, I would think a transit website organized based on rider needs could effectively sell ads “targeted” to each group.

  4. Hi Sharon, this article has come at a great time for me! I’m working on a map for a large client that has a lot of different kinds of businesses—some purely commercial, others more cultural or healthcare-related—all across the state. They want a map to put up near the door in all of their facilities showing where other businesses they own are located. Unfortunately, this map has to both show the whole state and be no larger than 11×17, while listing over 45 different businesses in a handful of industries.

    The solution I settled on was to organize the businesses by city, which would enable me to limit the number of pins on my small state map, and organize each city’s businesses by industry, then alphabetically. My thought was that a customer seeing this map might say, “I’m at cultural building A in City X, what other cultural buildings are nearby?”

    It’s still a work in progress, but I’m hoping to take a chaotic bundle of information and add some useable order to it. Wish me luck!

  5. Our office manager used to create and distribute the company’s in-house phone directory.

    It was in numerical order.

    (I’m not making that up. And I *have* taken over that particular task…)

  6. Sharon Burton

    Good comments, all of you! Thank you. Keep sharing examples of accurate and useless information. It’s out there everywhere.

  7. Grant Bentley


    I think you are the George Carlin of content strategy – you see the absurdity where others just let the information wash over them without realizing how empty they feel after the encounter. I have always wondered if there was a Rosetta Stone that could be applied to every information communication situation and here it is: the Golden Rule of Context says that content developers must present information the way they would like to encounter it if they were the audience. “Standing in your customer’s shoes” means feeling the feelings a human being must be feeling when the encounter is being made and quickly bringing them to a more informed and empowered state. I am reminded of the efforts that the BART system made several years ago to switch from a list of wordy bullets that describe rescue procedures for train riders to a visual (really a series of cartoon-like images) combined with carefully selected words and phrases. What better way to practice the Golden Rule of Context than to imagine yourself in the customer’s shoes when a fire breaks out in a subway tunnel underneath 300 feet of water in the middle of the San Francisco Bay! Love ya, Grant

  8. This is very timely for me! One of our sales people approached me with a request to add more information about a replaceable fuse that is installed in one of our products (usually located at a remote site). Although the problem some customers experience is a result of a blown fuse, the initial symptom they see is an alarm that is generated in the monitoring software located at the main plant. I can discuss this problem when talking about the fuse, but the customer is more likely to be looking for information on the alarm. In my case the fuse is the lemon, and the alarm is the “egg on the floor.”

  9. Wayfinding…the perfect job for user-centric technical communicators. I’d like to see us involved more often in this discipline (obviously, there’s opportunity everywhere!).

    Good post as usual.


    • Sharon Burton

      Thank you, Scott! Way-finding is exactly when information is accurate and can be completely useless.

  10. Loved your medical center story. Try finding anything at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles! There are NO directories. You have to wait in line to ask a live person, and hope that their verbal instructions make some sense and can be remembered. One such person had a handy solution: she had typed up directions onto a small piece of paper and was handing them out. Apparently there is no unified “user experience” protocol for finding your way around.

  11. Dennis Wilson

    Your sentence “The book covers various household things like lemons and what you can use them for.” — you said it is awkward. Actually, it’s an accurate record of colloquial spoken word. That’s how we talk. And a book such as the one you describe, that appeals to a mass audience with “homespun” hints, probably is best written in a conversational tone. Sometimes I’m bothered, in technical writing, about the need to change conversational tone to something more formal. There are arguments on both sides of that one, of course.

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