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You and Me: Making Technical Communication Personal

by Jonathan Price

Text of talk presented at the 48th International Conference of the Society for Technical Communication, Chicago, IL, May 2001. For the full slide show (with illustrations), see You and Me: Personalizing Technical Content.  

We are moving toward an audience of one.

  • Beyond the great mass.

  • Beyond niches, micromarkets, subgroups, demographic clusters.

  • •Communicating with one person at a time.

Big topics

What personalization is, through examples. 

Example: starts with an expert system.

  • Interrogates you to make decisions building a recipe.

  • Asks you to name the product, choose a package.

  • Talks to you, person to person

  • Remembers what you created last time.

  • Lets you choose a graphic look for the site.

  • Offers related services or products.

Another example: 

  • Puts you onstage, in their clothes.

  • Lets you get measured, or enter measurements online.

  • Lets you put together your own model from spare parts.

  • Asks embarrassing personal questions.

  • Shows what you might look like in their clothes.

  • Lets you try on all the pieces of an outfit at once.

  • Lets you save several outfits for your next visit.

  • Reminds you what went into an outfit you saved earlier.

Personalization starts with a profile.

  • You register, or you give some information.

  • On return, you're identified by a cookie, or your login.

Personalization lets you organize content your way.

  • Pick a content model.

  • Add or remove content to your own page.

  • Move content around.

  • Arrange the layout with your new content.

  • Pick and choose from standard content.

  • Each object is a distinct element, so we can allow the user to reshuffle the content model.

  • Users set up their own model for a particular type of content.

  • Users get to elevate the elements they use most often. 

  • Users get to iconize content they rarely need.

  • To let users choose, we display the full content model for each type of content, such as a procedure and let users pick which elements they want included, excluded. 

Personalization brings relevant content to your attention.

  • Content-matching surfaces some related material you may not have known about.

  • Suggested content helps you avoid browsing and searching--making the site easier to use, saving time.

  • Niche content focuses on topics each group might be interested in.

  • From login profile we pick the right content model for each group.

  • If you are a beginner we give you hand-holding. 

  • Local translations pop up, based on profile language choice. 

Personalization remembers what you said and did.

  • No more retyping your address, identifying products you own, specifying your interest.

  • Give people control over every piece of information in their profile. Invite editing, updating, greater accuracy.

Personalization brings relevant news.

  • Email tailored just for not spam.

  • It brings info I might not get, because I do not visit the site very often.

  • People act on these emails, re-subscribe.

  • They want product news, solutions, trouble-shooting, gossip.

Personalization means you get a personal response.

  • The email mixes personal identifiers, and topics, with generic content aimed at the niche.

Personalization extends customization.

  • Customizing means that the site or the user makes choices among various chunks of content aimed at the user's particular niche. 

  • Personalizing recognizes the actual situation of the individual receiving the information.

  • Personalizing may also reveal information about the writer, as an individual.

Pluses and Minuses

Benefits to the organization

1.      Personalization makes the site easier to use, saves customers time.

2.      Personalization increases consumer loyalty, brings return visits, leads to repeat business, reduces costs per sale.

3.    The user's participation in the personalization process creates a reason not to switch sites.

4.    Over time, the process builds a relationship, reducing the consumer's tendency to get angry, suspicious, or indifferent.

5. Personalized content is more relevant, easier to understand, think about, remember. People get it.


Downside, for organization

  • Cost of converting to structured content.

  • Cost and time involved in integrating databases.

  • Cost of installing content management system.

  • Cost of integrating content management with customer relationship management software.

  • Cost of data mining old transactional data.

  • Difficulty of restructuring the organization around the customer, not the product.

  • Difficulty of creating a new workflow for content from all over the organization.


How to personalize content

1. Create a unified profile.

2. Use rules and inferences to bring individuals together with content.

3. Build informative objects for assembly on the fly.


1. Create a unified profile.

  • Ask for key information.

  • Reward their effort immediately.

  • Pull up records of previous interactions with the individual.

  • Ask more questions from time to time, with popup windows, surveys, sweepstakes, special offers that require answering just one more question.

  • Put a user in charge of his or her own profile.

2. Use rules or inferences to bring individuals together with content.

  • All information in the profile must be tagged, passed to content management, for immediate action.

  • Rules identify niche audiences, recommend specific content, build pages on the fly.

  • Make inferences from choices, behaviors.

3. Build informative objects for assembly on the fly.

  • An object is a class, such as Procedure.

  • When we write a particular procedure we are creating an instance of the class.

  • Each instance of that object follows the same internal pattern.

  • Objects can be nested within other objects.

  • Each class of object answers a type of user question.

  • An object can send and receive messages with other objects (links).

  • The same object can be reused in many different locations.

  • An object may have many attributes.

  • We use the values in the attribute fields to pick content, search.

  • Objects can be put together on the fly, to create personalized content.

  • XML means self-describing elements--objects to store in an OO database, manipulate with software.

  • Content management handles personalized assembly of content.

  • Create document models (DTDs) for each small group within your audience.

  • Create XSLT stylesheets to transform content on the fly.

  • Allow consumer choices to determine the content model and stylesheet for an individual, following rules, inferences.

The 15-step process for creating content for one person at a time.

1. Launch a core group to lead development. 

2. Develop models of all content.

      Drill down to the smallest element you or a user might want to access by name, act, or type.

3. Diagram the structure of each complex object.

4. Create a DTD for each type of content.

5. Create a layout for each type of content as it will appear to each niche.

6. Create a stylesheet for each type of  content, medium, and niche.

7. Develop search forms to find objects by attribute values.

8. Define the workflow as your team moves content onto the Web.

9. Work out how to collect live data from databases, such as customer relationship management, transaction history.

10. Buy, adapt, or get access to existing authoring tools, content management software, or an object-oriented database to control the publication of objects.

11. Create guidelines and train writers, artists, and editors.

12. Use user and task analysis to identify and describe each niche.

13. Think of new ways to personalize, multiplying perspectives for one individual.

  • What decisions does this kind of person need to make?

  • What questions does this kind of person have, indicated by searches, customer support queries?

  • What values can you discover in this niche?

  • Attitudes?

  • Trends?

  • What kind of content might be most relevant to this kind of person's job, tasks, culture, personal career?

14. Build new attributes into existing elements, to finetune delivery, searching.

  • Build new elements cautiously.

  • Exploit existing elements fully.

15. Respond to email personally.

  • Start off with phrases from the other person's email.

  • Put the generic answer in the middle.

  • End with a personal note.

  • Sign your name!

Problems, challenges, and screwups.

  • Not enough people to write all this.

  • Unfinished, shaky, immature software.

  • Conversion difficult.

  • Baffling registration, profile process.

  • No follow through.

  • Make-believe personalization.

  • Content left unstructured.

  • Business not aligned with consumers.

What about privacy, trust, and honesty?

  • Be straight about the rewards of registering, filling in the profile, answering your questions.

  • Use double opt-in for your own e-mail newsletters.

  • Write the privacy statement in English, put it on every page, and, oh yea, follow it.

  • Don't throw their personal info in their faces like junk mail sweepstakes. "All the folks at 918 La Senda..."

  • The point of personalization is developing a relationship with an individual, through conversation.

Personalization changes our idea of audience.

  • The audience is not a homogenous mass.

  • The individual we are talking to is a peer.

  • The individual is active, not passive.

  • The individual contributes to the content, arranges it, asks questions, suggests topics, looks for a response from us. 

  • The individual has emotions, attitudes, characteristics based on situation (age, class, neighborhood, job)--and so do we. But the individual breaks out of the market segment.

Personalization changes our idea of what we do.

  • We alternate between being speaker and listener.

  • We are carrying on a conversation.

  • We are building a (very) small community.

  • We are struggling to get beyond our original groups, stereotypes, roles.

  • We are each discovering how much we can 

  • reveal about ourselves.

  • We are writing persona to persona.

  • We must cut through anonymity.

We are joining the conversation, one writer at a time, one visitor at a time.

Join the discussion by posting at





Copyright 2001 Jonathan and Lisa Price, The Communication Circle
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