“When we don’t know what our users need, we tend to write fluff and filler. This never works in our favor.” – Jared Spool

I feel like copying and pasting this again and again and again because it is SO true. It seems to be the one rule that writers, content strategists, marketers, executives, okay, everyone, seems to forget ALL the time. I would even sharpen it further to state:

“When we don’t understand our users’ questions, we tend to write fluff and filler. This never works in our favor.”

So how do we understand our users’ questions? And notice, I did not say “know” our users’ questions. We have to understand them on the most basic level—what does this person really need to know?—so we can provide the answer they are searching for.

I mostly write healthcare content, although I have written energy content as well. When I worked for the federal government, I produced several brochures to answer users’ questions.

How did I know what the users’ questions were? Well, part of my job was to man the phones for several hours every day, answering citizens’ questions about pipelines and land ownership issues, and how to find things on the agency’s website. In short, I had to know something about everything. When I wasn’t sure, I approached a Subject Matter Expert (SME) at the agency to answer my questions, so I could answer the person who called or emailed.

What I learned from this was two-fold:

  1. Really figure out what the person wants to know, so you can explain it to the SME.
  2. Really understand the answer, so you can explain it to the person who asked.

When I am writing a website, I try and understand users from a few different perspectives. I use some of the following techniques to help me:

  1. Asking them. For example, when I was writing a cardiology website, I once asked a cardiologist (who is a referring physician) why he chooses one hospital over the next. He told me that he relies on the prescription pad in the office. If it’s to Center A, he sends his patients there. If it’s a prescription pad for Center B, he sends his patients there. Brilliant. It tells me that on the referring physician page of the website, there should be a contact name and number to get new referral pads. It’s a huge insight into the busy life of a doctor. And a phenomenal, simple marketing idea.
  2. Usability studies. This is similar to Rule #1: “Ask them”, but you can’t always run one. Sometimes, I’ll just grab a friend or two and watch them use a website I might be working on, or ask them questions about the topic. You never know what you might find out.
  3. Gleaning from the data available. Look at the log files, the search terms that users type in to find what they are looking for on your site, popular keywords, blogs on that topic, other competitors’ sites. Again, you’re looking for all possible angles on an issue. Recently, while writing about breast cancer, I came across a topic that wasn’t originally part of the orginal proposed content. Because it seemed to be a lively topic of discussion across the Internet, I suggested including it on the website. It seems likely that users may perform global searches on this topic, find it on the site I was writing, and learn more about other services provided by this hospital for breast cancer.
  4. Talk to the SMEs. In my case, these are usually the physicians, but also consider the administrators, assistants and support teams and staff. Many times the physicians have a sense of what users want to know about the conditions and treatments content, but it is the staff who can answer your questions about what to expect after surgery, how long it will take to heal, what you’re allowed to do while recovering. These are all questions AND answers users want on the page.
  5. Be curious. There is generally no other way to be a good writer, Web or otherwise. Good writers are students of human behavior and they relish the opportunity to ask questions and solve puzzles. A good content writer should be genuinely curious about the users at the other end reading content. Users are thinking about where they want to go and what they want to do with the content once they have it. Only a curious writer can satisfy.

STOP the fluff and filler! Figure out what your users really want to know and figure out how you can REALLY answer them.


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