How do I make information-communication effective?

In one of my recent interactions as a guest speaker, I spoke about the importance of knowing the language-and-design basics in designing effective information communications. It was my first interaction with that batch of students. So, for obvious reasons, I was as much excited as the students. This post is about one of the questions that struck me during our interaction. And, to help you understand this, I will use the purchase-decision analogy. Hope it helps.

Take a look at the following picture of the flow of a typical purchase decision. It’s a process. A cycle, where the users move from one stop to another, gradually refining and redefining their information searches. Remember that “purchase” is ideally never a standalone activity. It’s always a cycle. And, at least in marketing, there isn’t any feeling that can match the satisfaction of seeing a repeat purchase.

Information communication and purchases are cyclical. Fulfilment of one objective leads to another.
Information communication and purchases are cyclical.

Needs and Interests

Undoubtedly, these are the biggest influencers when seeking information. In our lectures on Economics, during my graduation days, the mentor would often quote the example of Salt. It is but that ingredient you cannot cook without. Despite how expensive it gets, you will still buy and use the same quantity.

Likewise, despite what product, service, or offering you use, your needs and interests continue to be the primary influencers in your decisions. This means that your association with a brand experience (through a product or service) lasts only as long as you are either needy or interested. For example, a lot of my friends switch to new smartphones every six months. That interests them.

I see that our needs can help designers create intuitive information designs. And, interests influence all impulse-based information searches. It is mostly a combination of the needs and interests that help you navigate the design and information-search expectations. For example, almost all of those who I know have preferences and specifications for buying clothes, perfumes, and watches.

The preferences are based on impulses and interests and the specifications on the intuition and needs. Of course, the other drivers still influence the pre-purchase searches and the purchase decisions, but only later. The start is mostly something like “I want that red evening gown,” and boom you’re running internet searches for the nearest outlet you can buy one.

Passive Decision Making

We make a lot of decisions every day. For example, “do I wear the blue jeans or the black trousers for today”, “do I take that left turn to avoid the evening traffic”, “This cupcake looks yummy. Should I buy it”, or “I don’t think it will rain today. I should skip taking my umbrella to the office.” We raise questions, and then we answer those questions based on our perception and acquired knowledge.

The acquired knowledge influences almost all information-search objectives. Each purchase decision leads us to another decision until we reach conclusive evidences on the lines of our needs or interests. If we can search for the required information and justify our purchases, we make a decision, or if we cannot, we continue to search for alternatives, if time permits. That brings us to our next stop, the Environmental Cues.

Environmental Cues

Last week, my colleague helped his friend purchase a car. For his friend, my colleague’s views were highly valued. But, he’s not alone. Most of us make decisions based on reviews. When we seek information for something, we mentally map and compare its strengths and weaknesses. Basically, it is hard to reach a perfect product. But, we can definitely search for a product that perfectly suits our needs as long as we have someone who can approve and justify our choices.

But, how does that affect the information searches? Ask a simple question “Where do I get the best cakes in town?” to your colleagues and friends. Almost all of them will have their respective favorites. Now, search for the same question on the internet, and at least double the responses. Tell me if you are not confused successfully!

Purposeful information searches can, and do, provide a lot of information. But, at times, such information abundance is confusing, needless, or misleading. That’s because we know what we want, but we seldom know how to correctly look for it. The same applies into purchase decisions as well. When I am in such a fix, I use the feature-benefit equation to look for cues. I try to map the intentions with the actions. So, if I search for “the best eggless fruit cakes on the MG road,” and not about “the best cakes in town,” I will surely get only a few choices in comparison to the abundant information.

Purchase decisions are tricky. And, abundance of information may ruin purchase opportunities. If you face such document (in technical communication) or customers (in purchase-decision fixes), look to map the intentions and action (that is, map the needs and benefits or the interests and snob appeal). We’ll talk about snob appeal in the Information Background section.

Personal Background

A customer’s purchase decisions (and consequently, the information-search parameters) are subjective. We must consider factors, such as the personal and family backgrounds, while pitching to their needs, wants, and interests.

My first job was with one of the largest media houses in India. I assumed dual responsibility of providing the edit support and handling the space-selling activities. When I would pitch the ad spaces to my prospects, I would ask questions more than they would ask. I would prefer to listen to them (and their needs and interests). Preferably, toward the end of a meeting I would propose the solution. That way, I understood about the customers’ requirements by knowing their purchase-decision filters.

Information Background

At times, we let our wants take over our needs. And, usually that’s not intentional. But, when this happens, we seem taking a plunge into a sea of emotions where we see only vibrant colors on which we continue to float into the unknown, the unseen, or the unexplored… unless we are woken up struck by the reality.

I know at least a couple of them who bought “The slimmest phone in your city.” They may not have been looking for something really that specific, partly because it is just meaningless to buy a phone just because it has a snob appeal. But, if we skin the hair of this message, we find the following two keywords: slimmest and your.

Basically, I doubt that the statement would appear equally interesting if we replace the word “your” with, let’s assume, “the.” This affects two things. First, it cuts off the personal association. Second, it may change the end result (purchases). We will talk about the effect of separating personal association in the Active Decision Making section. For now, let us talk about the word “slimmest.”

The word “slimmest” creates the first ripples of desire. It shifts the product into the “aspirational” zone for its prospects. So, though you don’t need the product, the company wants you to want it. So, they don’t sell “just another phone”, but they sell this feeling of “owning” the slimmest phone. It’s interesting how marketers can put in so much thought behind such a simple message.

Active Decision Making

Snob appeal lies in the exclusivity the customers experience in owning a product. So, a product has a snob appeal if it is either too expensive to own or requires you to carry a special skill to own it. During our graduation, we read that the only way to “sell” something is to either increase its value or reduce its price. The snob lies in elevating the sense of this value to bargain higher prices.

As promised, we will look at the effect of separating the personal association in this section. Now, because the personal association – if we replace the word “your” with “the” as “the slimmest phone in the city” – is missing, the approachability of the information is no longer there. And, if the approachability is not present, I’ll most likely switch the brand. I think that’s one of the reasons companies now adopt the personal approach to sell products.

This is contradicting, but, of course, human. The communication, as I strongly believe, is NOT about a product, but about its users. It is about “you.” It is about what “you” can do with it, and NOT what it can do for “you.” Some of the internal keyword researches for one of my ex-clients predicted hyper-localization of products {documents (?) In our case} and services.

Toward the end

I have seen a lot of blogs these days that talk about how technical communicators can help “market” things more effectively. I too have written on the topic some time back. I see that a technical communicator can, and does, bring sharpness to the communication strategy. So, it doesn’t really matter if the strategy is to help readers locate the required information or to introduce a new product. The fact is, the communication principles are the same, be it marketing communication or technical communication. And, we can use those principles to create purposeful communication.

It was good to talk to students. And, I hope this interaction may have answered some of their questions. As a marketing graduate, I too have mentally answered questions that relate to marketing communications and the buying behavior of customers. Going forward, it seems that more technical writers will get to answer similar questions to “market” their opinions.

The session was on interacting about the basics of design principles on information design. As told above, we discussed about anything that related to the use of basic design principles to improve written communication. The question made me turn back to some chapters of my professional life. But, I was able to hint about this question to the students, to later talk about the purchase-decision flow. But, because the information too flows through the same stops as does the purchase decision, it is all the more interesting to write about it.

Writing and designing content to help understand purchase decisions is an interesting task. In ways more than one, this question puts me into the shoes of the users, and makes me think (and hence write) better. If I can look to see the value proposition as a user, I can become a better marketer of my work. This rule applies in both technical communication and marketing communication alike.

But, despite what I do, you will read my blogs only if you are either needy or interested – remember primary influencers? Happy reading.