Before I started working at Yoast to develop our Yoast Academy training courses, I worked as a high school teacher. After starting my job at Yoast, I quickly realized that the educational principles I came across in my previous job were really powerful tools in the online world as well. In this article, I’ll explore three areas to help you engage your online audience: knowledge gaps, memory overload, and creating a connection. I’ll also give lots of practical tips to help you do better yourself.
The curse of knowledge
One problem that you’re likely to run into when maintaining a site or product is the so-called ‘curse of knowledge’. The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that suggests it’s more difficult for experts to explain things to beginners. The Wikipedia entry does a good job of rounding up some key research into the bias. Remember those times you had no idea what the teacher was trying to say and a classmate seemed way better at explaining those things? That’s most likely due to the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge is everywhere. And you’re very likely to suffer from it.
The problem: the more you know, the more difficult it is to create something that is clear and intuitive to your users.
Tip #1: Do user research
Before you can solve any problems, you have to identify them first. Get users
without any previous knowledge together in a room. Let them use your product or navigate your site. Find pain points and eliminate them. If getting people into a room is difficult for you, surveys can help as well. Ask people what parts of your product they found difficult to use and use that knowledge to improve it.
Tip #2: Add scaffolding
Actively providing extra context and bridging the knowledge gap between you and your users is crucial. ‘Scaffolding‘ is everything a teacher uses to help someone do something that they can’t do on their own. An essential part of scaffolding is thinking about what another person already knows and using that to help them do something new. That’s exactly what you should do as well. Some things you may consider adding:
- Clickable question marks that clarify difficult terms;
- Internal links to articles that explain a concept you use in a more difficult article;
- Images that clarify what you’re trying to say;
- Tutorial videos;
- Live chat or email support;
- Documentation / lessons / articles that your users can use to understand;
- Step-by-step plans / flowcharts / instructions
- An indication of the level of an article so users can make an informed choice to read or not to read an article.
Always try to make this scaffolding as little invasive as possible. You don’t want to annoy more advanced users.
Tip #3: Audit your materials periodically
Often, it helps to look back on something you made at a later time. When you review something you wrote three months ago, you’ve already lost some of the context and perspective you wrote it with. Which, in this case, is a huge advantage!
When you audit your materials, make sure to consider:
- Your intended message: do the materials convey it effectively?
- The use of jargon
- Assumptions about previous knowledge users have available to them
Minimizing cognitive load
When humans do things, they use a cognitive system called working memory. This memory saves information in our brains for a few seconds to a few minutes. It allows us to make sense of what we’re doing. Unfortunately, working memory is limited. It’s easily overstimulated. When it is, people get frustrated or distracted. This leads to them clicking away or growing tired of your product. Managing working memory is key to keeping your audience engaged.
Tip #4: Less is more
As creators, we like to get fancy. We want what we make to be cool and fun. Sometimes, this leads to fluff features or content. Carefully consider: does what I’m adding make the whole better? If it doesn’t, remove it. Addition by subtraction is a very powerful tool for engagement.
Tip #5: Pay a lot of attention to readability
One of the most common problems on websites is readability. Most copy is much more difficult to read than it should be. Writing shorter sentences and using fewer difficult words can help your usability tremendously. Even if your audience is smart, easy-to-read copy is very working memory friendly. It simply costs less energy to read. This energy can then be spent on more important things. One way to improve readability is by ruthlessly editing your copy. Ideally, you should spend more time editing your text than writing it.
Tip #6: Break everything down into bite-size chunks
The working memory struggles with large blocks of information. The human mind needs focus, and it’s up to you to create this focus. Don’t write 30-word sentences or 20-sentence paragraphs. Don’t crowd your menu with 20 categories. Don’t stuff 20 options into one tab. It’s overwhelming. Break your materials down into bite-size chunks that are easy to oversee, so your users can focus on what really matters.
Creating a connection
I knew all the theory when I started teaching; that wasn’t the problem. But it wasn’t until I really started connecting with my students that I became a good teacher. One of the most powerful ways to engage your online audience is by creating that fuzzy feeling of comfort, familiarity and connection. And most sites and products don’t do a good enough job of this. Of course, the first requirement is a usable product or site. There are lots of extra things you can do, though, to help reinforce your relationship with your user.
Tip #7: Invest in design and branding
It’s tough to overstate the power of consistent design and branding. Our Yoast avatars are a great example. All over the WordPress community, our avatars are immediately recognized as they stand out from the crowd in e.g. lists of speakers at conferences. The same goes for the images we use in posts and presentations. Providing your users with a similarly positive experience over all the different places where they interact with you, helps you get recognized and valued.
Tip #8: Use the power of storytelling
Stories can be an incredibly powerful medium to make a connection with your audience. Most people remember one or more teachers who were always able to get them on the edge of their seat with great stories which helped them remember what the teacher was trying to explain. Stories and narrative are how people connect and communicate with each other. And storytelling isn’t necessarily about writing a large piece of fiction. You can just as easily hide little nuggets of storytelling in your blog posts or product pages. Yoast CEO Marieke has written a great series on storytelling that you should definitely check out.
Conclusion on engaging your online audience
The tips listed are a collection of insights I gained through my experience as a teacher, product owner and online writer. There are lots and lots more things you can do to make sure your online audience stays engaged. But honestly, if you get all of this right, you’re probably a fair number of steps ahead on almost everyone. Good luck!
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