Technical writing and consumer emotion

Emotion... a concept often neglected in the realm of technology. Some would argue that emotion is of little concern to the technical writer; that logic and accuracy alone are the primary concern when producing documentation. That, like the machines themselves, documents should be correct, and no more.

I strongly disagree.

After all, we don't write for machines. We write for humans. And for humans, every experience is an emotional one.

Stress and frustration are probably the most common emotions experienced by consumers. When products are difficult to operate, reality fails to match up with expectation and frustration is the result. Users consult the documentation to relieve this frustration; to find some way of turning their failed product experience into a successful one that results in relief and maybe even joy. Emotion is both the motivator and the goal for most documentation experiences; the beginning and the end.

As technical writers, we must consider the emotional state of users when we compose our documents. Doing so can increase the chances of the user meeting their goals, and having positive feelings about the product, which can lead to future sales. In some cases it can even save lives.

Imagine you are a on the scene of an accident and must administer first aid to a wounded person. How would you feel?

Chances are the adrenaline and other chemicals flooding your body during such a situation would impact your ability to take in information. Your patience and attention span in such a moment would likely be limited.

If you look carefully at how instructions are written on first aid kits, you'll notice they are brief, to the point, and labeled with clear headings. Why? Because the writers had a clear understanding of the sense of urgency involved in such an experience, and of the emotions that arise. They could have easily added overview information that would improve the user's understanding of first aid procedures, and such information might be beneficial in a non-crisis situation. But in an emergency, it can lead to disaster.

Technical writers also invoke emotions when writing warning labels. Warnings rely on fear to promote caution. If you can clearly communicate the risk of personal injury, you decrease the risk of irresponsible use of the product, and keep your users from harm. This is a heavy responsibility with ethical and legal implications. When writing such warnings, feelings of responsibility help you write in a more cautious manner.

Emotion is a factor in all types of documents. Some are obvious, such as technical marketing materials that persuade users toward a purchase; however, even less obvious documents, such as training guides and help content, can involve user frustration, feelings of incompetence, and so on.

When you write, think carefully about the emotions involved. If you can craft your document in a way that addresses the user's emotional needs and guides those emotions in a productive manner, the result is a happy and safe user. You will have fulfilled your role as user advocate.

Remember, every documentation experience is an emotional one.