If your content has 100 pages, and your user has 10 seconds…

How to structure content for people who already hate you

Nobody is going to read everything you write.

Nobody reads everything I write, except for my mom. When I wrote user’s guides for mobile phones, my mom once called to say that she had read the manual up to page 38, and now she had a question. Nobody else reads all of my content, but I hope that the right pieces are read by the right people.

That’s one of the reasons that structure is critical.

Structure is mostly about categorization and navigation. Let’s talk about the second one: Navigation is critical, because people often give you very little time to direct them to the information they need. I’ve watched user testing, and read user feedback, and I think people are limited by both patience and ego. If people get confused, they can start to feel stupid, which becomes “This product is stupid,” which becomes “How do I return this product?” People might spend more time returning the product than figuring it out, if the product makes them feel dumb. So your reader’s patience is probably counting down as soon as they start reading.

When we write content, we naturally structure it. But sometimes we let our perspective influence the structure, rather than matching it to our audience analysis.

You might be thinking of the structure from the bottom-up (“Here’s my content, how do I structure it?”), rather than the top-down—as your audience will see it (“How do I find the content I want?”). So it’s important to forget the content you have for a minute, and think about what your audience wants and expects when they arrive.

If your structure doesn’t send your audience to the information they want, then they never get a chance to see your lovely writing. That’s why we need to understand our audience—their terms, and their typical needs—then, structure information so that they can find what they want as quickly and easily as possible.

Of course, that also helps us ensure we’re covering all the topics we need to cover.

Here are some guidelines:

  1. Complete your audience analysis.
  2. Map out the content that your audience wants, focusing in on their expectations and their terms. Make sure the top questions are clear.
    Tip: Don’t call them “Top Questions,” because that’s structuring things from your perspective rather than the user’s. The user doesn’t know what the “top questions” are. Similarly, if you have an FAQ, make sure its info is available under the navigation as well.
  3. Test your category structure headings, and terms.

About number 3: User testing might not fit in your budget. But think: Is there a way you can spend even a little time spent watching and interviewing real users who are trying to use a draft of your document? Is there a way you can at least test your navigation (where users just find a topic), if you can’t test the content (where users read and follow a topic)? Even informal testing like that can offer some important discoveries.

Testing or no, make sure that you have some regular, real, live feedback from real, live users. Then, use that feedback. Make sure to adapt your structure and content as necessary, from the user’s perspective.

Most of all, always remember to back up and review your content structure from the top down. Even if you present all the information, it’s not really there if people can’t find it!