Adopt the User’s Perspective

Rolling through Roswell, NM, I saw this ad for a local bank on a billboard:

Lending Should Be Easy. We Make Sure It Is.

The message contains a fundamental flaw. Can you see it?

The message, which is aimed at people who might want a home loan—what the mortgage industry calls “borrowers”— says that lending should be easy.

The problem? Borrowers, the sign’s target audience, don’t lend; banks do. Borrowers borrow. Taken literally, the sign says, “We make sure our part of the process (lending) is easy.” The ad writers probably meant to say, “Borrowing should be easy. We make sure it is.”

For tech writers, writing about a product from the user’s perspective (which the billboard in Roswell does not do) means that we have to use syntax that reflects what the user sees and experiences, not what the system does.

Here are two sentences that illustrate this difference:

The system displays the dialog box.
This sentence describes what the system does.

The dialog box appears.
This sentence describes what the user sees.(In a case like this, you would never write “The dialog box displays,” right? Right? Right?)

You try it. Which sentence is more user-oriented? (I’ve italicized the phrase of difference between them.)

  1. This product enables you to organize your CDs according to title, artist, publisher, or release date.
  2. Using this product, you can organize your CDs according to title, artist, publisher, or release date.

In example (a), the construction “enables you to…” has several problems:

  • It implies that the product controls the user.
  • It makes the product the subject of the sentence.
  • It espouses language from a 12-Step program. (Okay, maybe that bothers only me, but still.)

Do you see what I mean? In this type of writing, the product is the focus of the documentation.

But remember: To the user, the product is a tool; The user needs to know that she is the focus of the documentation, and that the product can give her what she wants.

Example (b) keeps the focus of the text on the user.

  • It implies that the user controls the product—which she does.
  • It makes the user the subject of the sentence.
  • Nary an “enabler” in sight.

I’m not going to lie: Writing from the user’s perspective is hard work. But to quote Wallace Stegner: “Hard writing makes easy reading.”

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