Undead Americans and the Need for Improved Audience Analysis

Editor’s Note: Invasions of the undead are no respecters of holidays, and before we head into the end-of-year extravaganzas, we thought it best to bring you one piece that didn’t make it on the calendar during Halloween week. User’s Advocate Geoff Hart explains the real value of audience analysis to companies vying for that elusive (and not-so-real) market of Undead Americans .

undead americansUndead Americans are a rapidly growing market segment, and are predictably attracting increasing attention from technology companies that have recognized the profit potential from this market segment. Before continuing, I should note that technical communicators must avoid using the dismissive abbreviation “UAs”, not to mention the offensive epithet “zombies”, to describe these individuals. Such diminutives lead us to objectify these important members of our audience rather than treating them as individuals, leading to stereotyping rather than the effective creation of empirically derived, audience-focused personas. In particular, it encourages us to forget that the Undead American community is every bit as diverse as America herself. Consider, for one example, the enormous divide between the omnivore and vegan groups within this community. (See Romero’s “brains versus grains” essay for details.)

In case you’re not familiar with this emerging demographic, I’ve provided several references that should bring you quickly up to speed. However, despite the emerging literature on Undead Americans, there is little consensus on how to meet their documentation needs. Reliable audience analysis data is particularly lacking. Thus, in this article, I will summarize what is known, with the clear implication that to adequately serve this growing component of our audience, considerable additional research will be required to shed some light into the dark areas of our ignorance.

Psychological Attributes of Undead Americans

Unlike most of our audience, Undead Americans are ravenous readers. This fact alone should endear their community to technical communicators, who live for the written word. It certainly suggests that textual documentation remains highly relevant to their needs.

Undead Americans are also famously difficult to distract from their purpose. Thus, they are perhaps the only audience for whom Flash animations and animated GIF files are appropriate—or at least harmless. Whether such animations can be used effectively for rhetorical or communication purposes remains to be seen. A related aspect of their psychology is that they are highly (not to say “obsessively”) goal-focused. This suggests that our emphasis should be on task-based documentation.

For various medical reasons too complex to review here, Undead Americans have relatively poor language skills. In particular, they have enormous difficulty understanding complex phrasing and learning new words. Thus, writers should embrace the techniques of “plain English” and possibly even some aspects of controlled vocabulary approaches such as “simplified English”. Associated with these linguistic difficulties, Undead Americans have difficult enunciating clearly; as a result, voice-recognition interfaces are contraindicated.

This community is highly cohesive and integrated, and has been described as “aggressively evangelical” in terms of maintaining and expanding that cohesion. It is therefore noteworthy that these characteristics provide an enormous opportunity to leverage the power of social media, including viral marketing, to enhance the spread of knowledge among members. Important insights may be obtained from the work of Duncan Watts  on information contagion and from other work on complex contagion theory, particularly the aspects related to rumor propagation. Although disease propagation models have been proposed to describe the spread of information within this community (e.g., CDC 2012), there is a risk that adopting such models will pathologize what are, after all, the natural and unobjectionable characteristics of Undead Americans.

Physical Attributes of Undead Americans

Undead Americans, as a group, suffer from a range of physical handicaps. They are therefore governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which can lead to certain constraints on how documentation (and indeed, the software and hardware that we document) must perform.

Undead Americans are not known as the “walking dead” by coincidence, as J. Hornor Jacobs notes. Specifically, their physical condition leads to motion impairments. Notable consequences include slow reflexes (thus, hardware and software design should not require rapid motions such as double-clicking) and imprecise fine motor control (thus, buttons and menus should be large and easily accessed, more suitable for “mashing” than pressing). Some of the literature on design for elderly people from other communities may therefore provide useful insights.

As a result of these limitations, user interface design should favor iPad-style swiping gestures, perhaps assisted by “magnetic” attraction to interface objects, rather than more precise but difficult to execute keyboard- or mouse-based controls. In addition, because many members of this community lack what cultural studies theorist S. Green refers to as “socially approved bodies”, it is unwise to use hardwired controls such as predefined keyboard shortcuts. Designers cannot assume that users of their products will possess all the standard body parts. Thus, user interfaces should allow extensive customization to compensate for a wide range of physical lacunae.

Poor vision is ubiquitous within this community, suggesting that online documentation (e.g., Web sites, HTML Help) will be more effective than traditional printed documentation. Online documentation permits the use of various aids (e.g., screen-reader software, text magnification tools) to support those with the worst vision. In this context, the techniques of “fluid design” and “responsive Web design” are highly recommended; always prioritize reflowable, customizable documentation formats such as ePub rather than fixed formats such as PDF. In particular, users should be able to select their own font and display preferences rather than being forced to use hardwired layouts. Designs based on cascading style sheets, particularly if these can be replaced by user-specified templates, would be wise.

Conclusion and a Call to Action

As should be clear from the brevity of this article, much work remains to be done to better characterize this audience so that we can meet their needs through our documentation. However, a note of caution must also be sounded: Historically, audience analysis and usability testing researchers have shown a tendency to (literally or metaphorically) become part of the Undead American community. Although this community’s willingness to accept new members, irrespective of race, color, religion, gender, or creed, is laudable, it poses certain obvious risks to the researcher. Of these, the most important is the risk of losing the objectivity and distance that is required for successful research in the social sciences.

References

Brooks, M. 2003. The zombie survival guide: complete protection from the living dead. Three Rivers Press, New York. 288 p.

CDC. 2012. Social media: preparedness 101: zombie apocalypse. Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta.

Green, S. 2011. Physico-normative parameters of body image: an enforced anorexo-bulemic paradigm for Undead Americans. Cultural Studies 17: 143-167.

Hornor Jacobs, J. 2012. 10 essentials for surviving the zombie apocalypse: a practical guide.

Ma, R. 2010. The zombie combat manual: a guide to fighting the living dead. Berkley Books, New York. 320 p.

Romero, G. 2012. Alternative lifestyle choices among Undead Americans: the “brains versus grains” schism. The Atlantic Monthly, July 2012 (supplement): 23-37.

USDOJ. 2012. Information and technical assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act. U.S. Department of Justice, Washington.

Author’s note

Since online articles often appear out of context, it should be noted for posterity that this article appears as part of Techwhirl’s annual Hallowe’en series of articles and stories. The 2012 incarnation (ahem) emphasized zombies, hence this article. Although written with tongue firmly in cheek, it should also be noted that this article nonetheless provides a good example of a preliminary audience analysis that technical communicators can emulate for more conventional audiences.

Geoff Hart

During a sometimes checkered career, Geoff has worked for IBM, the Canadian Forest Service, and the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada. In 2004, he threw away all that job security stuff for the carefree—not!—life of the freelancer. Geoff works primarily as a scientific editor, but also does technical writing and French translation, and occasionally falls into the trap of leading or managing groups.

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