Writing Should Be User-Centered

Some people write because they want to tell a story. They don’t really care about people reading it. They just need to tell the story.

This is fine enough, until they decide to publish the story. Suddenly the “well I’m not writing it for other people” clause doesn’t work. The moment you decide that you want to put the story into a format that other people must read, then you have to consider the reader.

Much of what I’ve talked about, Clarity, Conciseness, is about writing being User Centered. It is simply writing so that your reader is able to read and participate in the story.

What I want to do is talk about how User Centered is different from User Friendly.

But it isn’t? You say.

But it is, I say.

The difference is the difference between what is real and what is unreal. Okay, User Friendly is false. It is cosmetic. It can be, if you’re not careful, unethical.

Consider the old coal commercials, where a kid is doing some activity and then talks about how great coal is?

This is an example of a User Friendly commercial. We all love kids. We especially love intelligent and well-mannered kids.

But do kids really care about coal? Do they really understand the benefits and drawbacks of coal use, coal mining and coal production? Have they learned the history of the coal industry, how workers were exploited? Do they understand how recent events compare to history with regard to the coal industry?

No. A marketing department has learned that people instinctively trust children. So if you want to present a positive message about a product, use a child.

The commercials are User Friendly because they appeal to the user. They are not User centered because they do not actually give the user information they need to make an informed decision. In fact, the “users” of these commercials don’t usually have any say in any of the markets or law-making regarding coal, except to perhaps write to CEOs and lawmakers.

In this case, the difference between User Friendly and User Centered is also a question of Ethics.

Technical Writing Rules on User Friendly vs User Centered:
In Technical Writing, User Friendly means that a document is laid out in a manner that is asthetically pleasing to a user. For example, colors are in pinks and complimentary colors in order to appeal to female users. User Centered means that a document is designed, tested on users, and redesigned so that the average user of the document can navigate it and use it.

Do you have something in your story that is there just to appeal to an imagined kind of reader, but serves no real story purpose? For example, do you constantly refer to the main character’s dog without using the dog to deepen the character or further the plot.

A better example: Does your antagonist kill, hurt, or maim a dog or animal or otherwise mistreat an animal or child for no reason that builds the story? Do you have your antagonist do something horrible just so you can build animosity in the reader, but that something doesn’t actually build the character or further plot?

Both of these are examples of being User Friendly, not User Centered. When you stop thinking of how you can make your story understandable and readable and start thinking about how you can attract a certain kind of reader or sell your story to a certain kind of publisher, then you move from User Centered to User Friendly, and you begin to put a false front over your book.


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