Technical Writing/Content Design Part 3 - The User Journey

Guiding your readers through the content

If there's one thing I learned at uni, it's this -  "It's all about the user journey." It was important then, when the Internet wasn't so widespread, and it's even more important now.  No matter what type of content you are writing, you need to guide the reader from their starting position, which may be one of complete ignorance, to where you want them to be.

In this post, I'm going to look at how technical writers, copywriters, and content designers assess the user journey. So buckle up, let's hit the road.

Understanding the reader's perspective

In the previous post in this series, I talked about researching your users. The information you get in the 'discovery*' stage is  really important, because it gives you an insight into who your audience are, what they need, and what level they are at (novice, moderate knowledge, expert, etc.).

By using this information as a starting point, you can figure out what the goals of each reader are.  From there, you can work out what process they will need to follow to achieve their goals and what problems they may face along the way. This is mapping their 'user journey' and it is a vital part of creating engaging content, irrespective of whether you are writing sales copy or information.

user journey

In the driving seat: technical writer

If you work as a technical writer, you can map the journey of the user based on what goal they need to achieve. This is why we have the task-based approach in documentation - the tasks are steps towards a goal.

Typically, the end user will want to:

  • Learn about a concept, so that they understand the bigger picture of how something works and the consequences of their actions
  • Learn how to do something to achieve their goal.

Here, we need to think about several things - What does the user already know and what do they need to know? When should they perform the task? What should happen when they perform the task? What could go wrong?

We can often combine these elements into a single topic, but sometimes the concept requires a lot of explaining, and so needs to be in its own topic. If that's the case, it's important to include links to contextual info and related steps. Because all of these elements are needed to make the journey as easy as possible. Take one or more of them away and the reader is in for a bumpy ride.

customer journey

In the driving seat: copywriter

If you are a copywriter, the approach to the user journey has to be different, as the purpose of the content is different. You still need to give answers, but you've also got to keep the reader's attention.

With copywriting, the reader:

  • May not be actively looking for your content at all
  • May have searched for your site or brochure
  • Needs to be convinced. Your content has to promote the benefits of the product or service and guide the reader around any objections they may have.

So with this user journey, you need to consider: How did the reader reach the content? What are they looking for? What are their priorities? What's going to capture their attention? How does the reader feel about the company or product? What do we want the reader to do? What obstacles will prevent a reader from taking action? How do you convince them that these obstacles don't exist or can be easily avoided?

There are many different copywriting formulas for constructing content to answer all of these questions. And they all put the customer first. The idea of writing about benefits rather than features is very similar to writing about goals instead of describing features in technical communication.

user story job story

In the driving seat: content designer

Content designers are somewhere in between copywriters and technical writers. In a previous post, I mentioned a content creating spectrum, where technical writing is at one end, copywriting at the other, and content design somewhere in the middle. So content designers need to take the copywriters approach to the user journey for sales content and the technical writers approach for informative content.

Sarah Richards mentions two ways of mapping the user journey, and she calls them user stories and job stories. I'm not going to go into great detail on these, as Sarah describes them excellently in her book Content Design (so go buy the book!). But in a nutshell:

  • A user story covers 'I want to do x to achieve y'
  • A job story covers 'When x happens, do y to achieve z'.

With a user story, the user has a specific goal already in mind, and the content helps them to achieve it. With a job story, there is a situation that requires a person in a certain job role to respond in a certain way, and the content directs them.

This is similar to the technical communication approach to task-based writing. However, content designers, like copywriters,  may need to consider the emotions, moods, and desires of the reader. These affect the tone and message that's needed for each journey.

For example, if the content is about a sensitive or controversial issue, the content designer needs to consider the reader's feelings. If the readers are likely to be angry, the tone of the content will be different to that used if they are enthusiastic.

With technical writing, we deal more with plain facts, so don't need to consider those aspects quite so much (if at all).

user journey

The full customer experience is an extended tour made up of many journeys

Irrespective of your job role, I think it's important that we remember each piece of content is one journey in a much larger process.

If you're writing sales copy and you turn a reader into a buyer or lead, great. But that's just the start of the customer experience.

When the customer uses the product or service, they are likely to need help understanding how it works and what their workflow should be. That's where content designers and technical writers need to guide the reader through the various workflows to the required goals.

And let's not forget the UX writing too. The content on packaging, the name of options in software, the labelling of ports on hardware, it's all an important part of the customer journey.

It's all content. It's all part of the user experience. And we need to try and make sure that it is:

  • Mapped out clearly when we plan and create our content. How can you guide them if you don't know what they want to achieve?
  • Consistent in tone and style
  • Designed to guide the reader along each step of their journey.
Craig Wright technical author

Craig Wright is an experienced technical writer based in Chesterfield, UK.  He hates writing about himself in the third person, so I shall stop now.

Always interested in new content writing opportunities. Remote working preferred.

Phone +44 07954141761

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