March 12, 2015

How Do You Define a User's Information Need?

As a technical communicator, you probably know why you design and write information. It’s because you want to satisfy the user’s information need. But how do you know what information users need in the first place?

Your answer will differ depending on how you define an “information need,”  which is a central concept in the world of technical communication. The purpose of this article is to distinguish between two conflicting definitions of an information need, and to show how each perspective represented affects the design of end user assistance.

You should, of course, abide by the perspective that leads to happy users, but which is it?

Two definitions of “information need”

Users formulate goals and perform tasks to reach them. A user may use a product in order to reach a goal. In such case, the user will want to reach the goal as easily, efficiently, and securely as possible.

A user will need to possess certain knowledge in order to reach a goal. If the user does not have enough knowledge, we can talk about someone needing information. But who decides when a user doesn’t have enough knowledge? This, depends on how you define an information need.

An information need can be defined as:

  1. The information that the product expert says the user needs to have learnt before using a product, or
  2. The information that the individual (user) perceives to need as a consequence of not knowing how to use a product.

Let’s look into these two definitions before discussing how each one radically impacts information design.

The expert decides what users need to know

The expert, who is either the technical communicator or a subject matter expert, decides what users need to know in order to use a product as easily, efficiently, and securely as possible. If the user lacks this knowledge prior to using the product, they will probably have to be trained.

The school system is built upon this definition of an information need. Students must acquire knowledge in order to function as worthy members of society. Experts throughout history have decided what students must learn. Students, in turn, have had very limited possibilities to decide for themselves what they want to learn.

Individuals decide what information they need

We know from user behavior studies in minimalism research that users stick to, and act upon, what they know when using products. A user may experience problems in product use for various reasons and, as a consequence, ask questions and seek answers.

Here, it is the individual who decides what information they need and seek, not the product expert. The user asks “How do I export XYZ?” since discovering the answer resolves the problem. The user consults an expert to get the answer, but it is not the expert who define the question.

An expert may deem the question of an individual user as irrelevant and use their expert knowledge to change the user’s mind: “It is not the exporting of XYZ that solves your problem, you need to know how to set up ABC.”

How do we design from the expert’s perspective?

My experience is that most technical communicators design from the expert’s perspective. We conduct target group analysis to analyze the goals and tasks of the target user— either a practitioner, or specific company role (as depicted in article, Why Should Technical Communicators Avoid Target Group Analysis?).

Then we ask subject matter experts for input— in order to capture the knowledge that the target user is recommended to know to reach a goal as easily, efficiently, and securely as possible.

The knowledge is organized in static book we call a manual. Content is often organized so that the basic stuff, like “system overview,” is presented first, followed by the itemized details— just like a training course. This approach is not necessarily a bad approach, but it has proven to have a number of drawbacks.

The problem is that most users are seldom interested in investing time in understanding a product via the learning-by-reading approach prior to usage. They jump straight into discovery learning mode and explore the product based on what they know.

When users get stuck, most of them ask questions and search for answers. The user will not find answers in a manual designed from the expert’s perspective, simply because it was not designed to support an individual’s information need.

How do we design from the individual’s perspective?

To design for the individual’s information need is more fruitful, yet more challenging. You need to predict the questions users ask, and then write the answer. You need to make answers easy to find. Users probably find this type of end user assistance more helpful, since it aligns with actual user behavior.

This approach assumes that there exists a common body of questions many users ask. If the questions one individual asked were completely different from the questions all other users asked, this approach would not work.

When designing for the individual information need, it is wise to assume that the user has some preexisting knowledge. Otherwise, you end up answering many basic questions which dramatically increases your work load. This preexisting knowledge may have been acquired from training, based on an expert’s recommendations.

Minimalistic Information Design— the happy compromise?

In many cases, users must prove a certain level of knowledge before being allowed to use a product. A good example is a pilot, who is required to undergo extensive training before being allowed to maneuver an aircraft.

Training material can be designed according to Minimalism. A Minimalistic Training Design means that you try to teach the user the knowledge that the expert recommends they have, but not by assuming they are willing to learn by reading the book. Rather, training is accomplished through supporting the discovery learning approach— by offering hints and tips along the learning path which steer the user in the right direction.

To me, the Minimalistic Information Design approach is interesting because the information need is neither approached from the expert perspective or the individual perspective. It is somewhere in between, though a bit closer to the expert perspective.

But to provide end user assistance that is designed solely according to minimalism is not a happy compromise. Even if every user were trained prior to product use, it’s nearly impossible to train them to cope with every feasible problem that might occur during product use. So even a trained user may ask questions— and a minimalistic manual is not designed to answer an individual’s questions.

So, how do you define an information need, when designing end user assistance?


To design for the individual’s information need is what my blog series, “Designing for the Searching User” is all about. If you're interested in exploring it, see previous articles listed below: 

How Can We Help Users Judge the Relevance of Content?

Will an Answer be Easy to Find if We Mimic Human Dialog in User Assistance?

Should the Answer to a User Question be a Short or a Long Topic?

How Do We Make Short Answers Easy to Find?

How Do We Predict Use Questions?

What Types of Questions Do Users Ask?

How Do We Know Which User Tasks to Write in Manuals? 

Is Intelligent Content a Good Idea in Technical Communication?

Why is it Important to Design for the Searching User? 

Why Should Technical Communicators Avoid Target Group Analysis?

Can Tech Writers Create Links without Even Writing Them?

About the author

Jonatan Lundin

Jonatan is a pioneering information architect backed by over 20 years dedicated to XML documentation, and designing for findability.

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  • Excosoft
  • Information Design
  • User Experience

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