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Magazines > ONLINE > July/August 2007
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Vol. 31 No. 4 — Jul/Aug 2007

Making Sense of Users: One Personís Experience
By Jill O'Neill

The invitation was an intriguing one. I would have a chance, at the 2007 Buying & Selling eContent (BSeC) conference (, “to experience a cutting-edge technique for gaining a cognitive edge in their own enterprise. Share your stories in this interactive narrative capture project that will result in the development of archetypal content users.”

The 2007 BSeC event was soliciting involvement by its attendees in an experiment. Information professionals and publishing participants in the workshop would spend the better part of a morning sharing stories of information-seeking behaviors in the presence of facilitator Michael Cheveldave, a practitioner in the field of narrative capture for NuOptiks Consulting (, and come away with a better sense of The User. Conclusions developed during the course of the workshop would be used as the basis of a closing segment of the conference program.

Since a colleague had suggested to me earlier that month that I was not, in fact, a typical user of information products and services, I thought the workshop might be a good test. I would listen to the stories of others, compare those experiences with my own, and conceivably learn something about my behaviors as well as those of others.

On the 5-hour flight to Phoenix, I gave considerable thought to my routines in gathering information for professional purposes. What bad habits did I observe in myself? What expectations were in the minds of my colleagues, those I had to serve? I had 3 to 5 pages of anecdotes and opinions written in my notebook by the time I landed.

As it happened, I did not need my notes. My contribution to the exercise, I learned the next morning, was never intended to be just a simple sharing of war stories, habits, and observations.


Cheveldave, a charming Canadian, welcomed me and about 20 other participants into a conference room, three walls of which were hung with galleys of articles from various Information Today, Inc. publications. Each article had a paragraph or two highlighted in yellow. Randomly, without regard to professional role or expertise, participants were broken into small groups. Our instructions were to scan the articles on the wall and break the highlighted segment into three distinct elements: 1) the players or characters present in each story, 2) the specific actions taken by the characters, and 3) the issue illuminated by each anecdote. Each participant had color-coded sticky notepads on which to write the element identified in each story: green for characters, pink for actions, and blue for issues. As an example, I picked out a story and identified the character, a graduate student, who built and abandoned a Web page of personalized feeds (action taken by the character), complaining that the system required too much maintenance to be useful. In my eyes, the issue, illuminated by a quote from the student in the anecdote, was user unwillingness to take the time to maintain a tool despite its usefulness. Another participant reading the same story might have interpreted the issue as being an unsatisfied, perhaps unrealistic, expectation that machine-automated systems would track activity and learn from user behavior without effort on the part of the user.


Taking the sticky notes from us, Michael and his colleague applied the multicolored slips to butcher paper, also taped to the wall. Our next task was to cluster the color-coded story elements in ways that indicated certain relationships. Users who were information professionals appeared in one cluster, while physicians and lawyers were in a different group, and students were set off in a third. Each small group of participants had an opportunity to stand before each poster of stickies and rotate the notes in clusters in a way that made sense to them. If a cluster created by Group A made sense to Group B, they might leave it alone, or, if not, Group B could detach a character from the cluster established by A and move it around the board. The activity was surprisingly engaging for a group of relative strangers, few of whom knew each other prior to that Sunday morning. We chatted with one another, making connections in our groups, and then, at Michael’s behest, rearranged ourselves into new combinations, forming new groups. We continued to apply our sense-making skills to the elements before us. Like the kaleidoscope that stood over blooming spring flowers in the Arizona sun, we were breaking up our mental images of the users we encountered daily and rearranging the fragments to form a new image. We formed clusters, assigned titles to the clusters, and associated positive and negative attributes to clusters until the arrangements had changed to the extent that no group could recall the original stories from which specific elements had been taken. The constant churn of the group members ensured that no single individual or group demographic dominated the final outcome. Ultimately, Michael told us, we’d begin to see the emergence of archetypes and common themes.


The objective of the Making Sense of Users workshop was to explore how econtent buyers and sellers see their users. To do this, we applied Cognitive Edge ( facilitation methods to identify emergent archetypes, themes, and values from stories related to user experiences with econtent. Emergent archetypes are represented as characters and, as a group, provide a representation of culture. Archetypes are unique to each set of stories identified in a workshop group. They should not be confused with stereotypes or caricatures; the main difference is that members of the community should recognize some aspect of themselves in each archetype. In the same sense, emergent themes represent the dominant positive and negative thoughts related to the subjects and issues found in the stories, while the values represent the collective feelings described about actions and behaviors observed in the stories. Together, these workshop outputs form a set of cultural indicators that represent the participant’s perspective on a group of people—such as a market, end users, customers, or employees—through a process of indirect discovery.

Following the workshop described by Jill, I traced back all of the links to the originating character, subject, and action groups and identified the patterns in the results. The results reveal characteristics of the participants’ perspectives of the topic area being explored. When perceptual patterns are revealed to the participants, they often find surprising insights about their biased perspectives. The strength of one archetype’s relation to one or two character groups is an example of patterns we often see. The distribution of character groups across the archetype set is an indicator of the strength and pervasiveness of the archetypes, while the total number of archetypes gives a sense of whether the group is being stereotypical or holds a more sophisticated view and understanding of the characters.

The bottom line is that through an engaging, but indirect, workshop process, it is possible to reveal subliminal perceptions that people collectively hold about a complex topic or situation. In the case of the participants of the Making Sense of Users workshop at Buying & Selling eContent, their results show a strong stereotypical perspective of their users. When Dave Snowden, leading researcher and developer of the thinking behind the method, looked at the results, he said, “The social construction of archetypes by a community represents a powerful cultural indicator. The fact that no experts are involved in the process means that a community cannot excuse difficult learning; they created them, and it’s their responsibility.” Further details about the process can be found in Snowden’s article, “Stories from the frontier” (

It is even more powerful when a group contrasts such perceptions between two related groups. For example, this process helped a major bank in South Africa understand a new target market by contrasting how the bank’s sales and marketing groups viewed its new market with how a sample of the population from this new market viewed themselves and the banking services. It is often only by understanding how we are engrained in our patterned thinking and perceptions that we can unlock ourselves and learn to adapt to rapidly changing market conditions. It really is more about seeing with new eyes rather than discovering new landscapes.

Michael Cheveldave ( owns NuOptiks Consulting.


The afternoon introduction of caricature artist Gib Robbie, who is the InfoToons artist for Information Today, moved us to the next phase (and perhaps the most enlightening segment) of the exercise in the workshop. Michael moved around to the various wall posters, calling out the descriptors assigned to clusters and characters, asking the participants to assign visual characteristics to the individual and his or her work setting. Stereotypes floated up through our consciousness. This one might be a senior vice president in corporate America, a late adopter, a Luddite, resistant to change. That one was a younger person, an early adopter with an iPod and cell phone, a laptop and outrageously colored spikes of hair. The third was in the mainstream, checking emails on his BlackBerry and anxiously scrutinizing the clock.

But it was the fourth image that challenged the group’s mind-set. This was the character dubbed pirate or anarchist, and the visual clues to his identity were debated at some length. Robbie came near to completing one image only to be told that it was all wrong and he would have to start over.

The difficulty was that among the information and business professionals in the room, there was no common agreement as to who the anarchist might be. Without some consensus among the group, visual clues couldn’t be assigned in meaningful ways. When the character was drawn with a T-shirt displaying a slash through a copyright symbol, one subset in the room pointed out that the objection was not to copyright itself but to the heavy-handed tactics employed by the Recording Industry Association of America in protecting copyrighted materials. When someone suggested a beer can to signify the person was a college student slacker, a mature businessman pointed out the fallacy of assuming that piracy was only the activity of the young. One woman, associated with a well-known journal of medicine, pointed out that, in her worldview, clinical practitioners and physicians were the anarchists, trying to use her product in ways for which it hadn’t been intended. Slowly the dynamic in the room changed as participants looked at each other and reorganized their thinking.

It was at that point that I blurted out the obvious. “There are parts of each of us in every one of those archetypes. If a technology doesn’t help you accomplish a specific task, your rejection of the technology doesn’t necessarily mean you are a late adopter or resistant to change. You reject it because it isn’t immediately useful to you.” If a user is behaving in unpredictable, perhaps undesirable ways with our information products or tools, that behavior is revealing a point of friction between what our product does and what the user needs to be able to do.

At the end of that afternoon, I doubt that any of the workshop participants felt more confident in their sense of just who The User was. As a friend said to me later, probably at the SLA reception, “We’re all users. None of us fits neatly into only one category or archetype.”


Further vindication came from John MacDonald of the California Institute of Technology later in the conference, when he described instances of “accidental” piracy, occasions when a user has no intent to infringe on copyright or exceed the bounds of a license, but innocently does so when actively using content and technology in ways he or she sees as sensible and necessary. The student who looked about for a data set to download in the interests of completing a class assignment and was pleased with the possibilities offered by an online dictionary available via the university’s library; the researcher, about to leave on a 1-year sabbatical in Antarctica, who wanted a digital library of 1,000-plus articles to consult while away; the user who blithely accessed a database from off-site because someone had misconfigured a server—where did those stories fit into our image of an anarchist?

The 4 hours allotted to the workshop was insufficient to move much beyond the framing of these four archetypes. None of us felt entirely comfortable with the generalizations, but we didn’t have time for further refinement. Michael had to work with what we’d developed on Sunday to present a meaningful assessment at the end of the conference.

The Take-Away

What is the truth about the user with which we’re all still grappling? Cheveldave’s conference presentation, on Tuesday afternoon, summarized the workshop, displayed the fully realized portraits of our archetypes, and added analysis to the process.

The workshop participants, made up of a mix of information and business professionals, had identified seven different characters in the early stages of the exercise, among them information professionals, Net gen’ers, academics (students and faculty), professionals, and creators. Cheveldave’s presentations revealed that indeed some percentage of those fell into each of the archetypal groups we named.

Our sense of the Mainstream User had business and information professionals in virtually equal numbers (35 percent of both), but the data seemed to indicate that there just was as high a percentage of information professionals that fell into the “Late Adopter” category. By contrast, the professionals only made up 14 percent of the late adopter category. Did vendors really see their customer base in those terms?

Anarchists fell largely under two character headings: end users and creators—36 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Professionals were there in single-digit numbers, but no one seemed to think that information professionals and librarians could ever be characterized as such.

The data indicated our perception that the Net gen’ers tended to be early adopters, as were end users, but the professionals and librarians lagged and weren’t perceived as early adopters at all.


In the end, though, it was an offhand comment made to me privately by the presenter just before the conference broke up for good that struck me as perhaps most meaningful. “Normally,” Cheveldave told me, “exercises like this reveal as many as 17 different archetypes. You and the other workshop participants came up with four.”

I have turned that idea over and over in my mind since March. What are we to make of that data? Is the information community so disengaged from real users that we cannot see the real differences among them? Is the transition from print to digital still so very much in the early stages that differences have not truly emerged? What are users doing? I study my notes made on the plane and try again to tell if I am in fact distinguishable from “a typical user.” I have no answer.

I would have preferred a longer workshop exercise at BSeC, more than just that half day. I would like to believe that the professionals in that room could ultimately have worked through limited perceptions to come up with more descriptive archetypes. But even if the truth is that users are just
humans struggling to build a world with the imperfect tools they have, that basic insight may be enough. Any success we have will only grow from delivering something better to a user frustrated in achieving his or her goal. It is as simple—and as challenging—as that.

Cheveldave’s slides can be viewed at the Buying & Selling eContent Web site (


Jill O’Neill ( is director of planning & communication at NFAIS.

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