Thinking About Audience – Always, Always, Always

So what did the dying Deaf man want to say?

This tale popped into my mind yesterday. It came from a newsletter about a Deaf hospice care project that a friend of mine was involved in as a sign interpreter.

A Deaf man in hospice care was trying to communicate with his caregivers and was getting frustrated at not getting his message across. A social worker came to see him and formed an opinion of what the man wanted to say. That opinion was influenced by the social worker’s own opinion of what a dying person would want to say. This social worker did not know sign language, and for some reason, this was not considered a problem. The man became more agitated in his efforts to communicate, and everyone assumed that he was afraid of dying. That brought up discussions of faith and comfort and lots of abstract ideas. Finally, it was decided to send someone who actually knew sign language to see the man. And what was he trying to say?

He wanted a blanket.

Really Knowing Thy Audience

Dana Chisnell recently wrote about involving adults in designing the user experience. It is a very good and very detailed article about how to prepare for older test participants. It sounds like Dana is highlighting areas that are often overlooked. I envision test facilities that offer food and beverages with no thought for personal health issues. Offering carrot sticks or apples as a healthy alternative might even be trouble for those who wear dentures.

After reading Dana’s article, I have the impression that this is where we technical communicators risk failure – when we think about our own wishes and design accordingly. It helps to have articles like Dana Chisnell’s to keep us on the path of best practices!

We all forget best practices, especially for rarely done tasks. I know. I fell into that trap last week. I intend to make personas in my current job, but I haven’t had the time. One of my current projects involves getting more product details from a product expert. I arranged a meeting with the expert and what was the first thing he said? “I need to know the audience because that will influence my answer.” Oops. I gulped. I had temporarily lost focus. Most embarrassing.

The social worker had not forgotten the need for a sign interpreter; they had never used sign interpreters. Their focus was adjusted and they could improve conditions for all the people in the hospice for deaf people by training staff in sign language. Leaving communication to chance is too risky!

Life is an Anthropological Excursion

Don’t assume. Ask.

Some technical communicators may say that they don’t have opportunities to meet the people who use their products. Others will respond, “use social media”. I would like to point out that not everyone is using social media. (I only have anecdotal evidence for that statement.) The risk is even higher in niche areas. Maybe it never occurs to your potential audience to discuss your product on social media. To find some answers, you need to get out of the office and into the field.

One way I get into the field is keeping my mind open to input all the time. Yes, that means I think about technical communication all the time. I have friends that will testify to this while rolling their eyes. I attend local events of all kinds – tweetups, WordPress gatherings, Likemind, you name it. I talk and I listen to people with varied backgrounds. It’s an inefficient way to gather data, but that’s how life works. This puts new and different perspectives in front of me all the time. That is what keeps my mental muscles flexed and always ready to embrace new ideas. This teaches me that not everyone will speak my language and think like I do. Just explaining what my company does is an excellent exercise for me. Do I use appropriate language and am I always showing respect for my listener?

Yes, I forgot about my yet-to-be-defined persona for a moment, but I never forget the diversity of humanity. I know about that from my years of hanging out with the accessibility community in discussion lists and in social media. I think awareness of diversity is an important characteristic of technical communicators. Thinking about ways to accomodate various needs is an exciting professional challenge. However, I cannot think about this alone – not well, at least. I must ask and listen constantly. The learning will never stop.

I once faced another technical communicator who was lying in a hospital bed with tubes taped to his mouth, making it impossible for him to speak. He wanted to say something to me and tried to make signs about something. (It wasn’t sign language; he isn’t Deaf.) My technical communication antennae went out, and I thought this was the magic moment when two communicators communicated regardless of barriers. Alas, I was lost. Maybe I tried too hard. It was one of my saddest communication moments. I looked at his eyes and thought I saw “you idiot!” in them. I wonder if that dying Deaf man had the same look when he was signing to the social worker.

That experience is parked in my mental database along with the tale of the Deaf man. I’ll be more prepared for a similar situation next time, and I will fail in a new situation at another time. Asking, listening, thinking, and always learning. This helps me understand the people I am designing and writing for. If someone asks for a blanket, I’ll be able to say, “Sure, what kind?” and let the conversation flow from there.