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Gusty Winds May Exist

-Pamela Kostur

Several years ago, I was on a road trip through New Mexico, after attending an IPCC (International Professional Communication Conference) in Santa Fe. Just outside of Albuquerque, a sign warned me that “gusty winds may exist.” I had to pull over I was laughing so hard. Perhaps I was overly sensitive to language-related issues, having just spent the last few days with professional communicators. But, I couldn’t help but wonder if the gusty winds would acknowledge the permission they had been granted.

Here’s the thing. Signs are content too. They direct us, inform us, but all too often, they misdirect us and confuse us. Sometimes they just make us laugh, not their intent, I’m sure. It’s not that I mind a good laugh, but when I need directions, or information, I need signs to communicate effectively.

One of these things is not like the other

Take this gem, spotted at a Longos supermarket in Toronto.

Longos portion control aisle





Since when is portion control an item in a supermarket? Besides, isn’t everything in a grocery store portion controlled? Aren’t oranges, apples, bananas, by their very design, portion controlled? You can buy a bunch of bananas, but presumably, eat one at a time, begging the question—are individual bananas included in the portion control aisle? What about individually-wrapped chicken breasts, or a steak?

I think I get what’s going on here, but I’m not sure I’d go into a supermarket looking for the “portion control” aisle. Even if I were, it’s a strange category. After all, a package of something can have its contents separated into portions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat the whole box if you’re so inclined. To my way of thinking, this categorization is just weird, and misleading.

Lost and confused

I’m easily confused at airports. There’s so much going on, and so many signs demanding our attention. Sometimes, just getting to the terminal building can be challenging.

At Toronto’s Pearson International, there’s a car park connected to a monorail station, with train service to the terminal buildings. The monorail waiting area is like a big hallway, with entrances to the monorail on both sides. It’s a great service, for the most part.

Early one morning, the scrolling sign above the doors to one of the monorail entrances read:

Single train service 1

Single train service



We stood there for several minutes, mulling over the message. What does single train service mean? When all trains are operational, does the message say multi-train service, or two-train service, or three train service? Just how many trains are there anyway? Will single train service affect how long it will take for us to get to the terminal?

Wouldn’t it be simpler to say something like, “Out of service. Use other platform.”

Just for laughs

Leaving a party one night, I was glad to see this sign, especially considering the few glasses of wine I had consumed. But, it still made me laugh! At least it got its warning across.

Uneven ground









And then there’s this one, in Toronto’s Gerrard St. Chinatown. Every time I see it, I giggle. I wonder how the store owners chose the items to list on the sign. I have yet to go into the store to see what they really sell, and to figure out the odd categorization. What is a winter accessory, exactly? Hats, scarves, mits, I’m guessing, although hats are also listed separately. Could I also buy a shovel or an ice scraper here? What constitutes a gift? Couldn’t most items in the store be given as gifts? I’m not sure what the store’s name is; I simply refer to it as the Toys Gifts Hats store.

Toys hats and gifts









Signs can be funny, frustrating, useful (or not), misleading. I want whoever creates the content for signs to remember that signs communicate. The content has to be clear, it must not be open to interpretation, and occasionally, it can make me laugh, but only if its message is clear.

Do you have any favourite signs? Send us your signs, tell us why or why they don’t work, and we’ll share them in our blog.

July 7th, 2014|Content analysis, Content Strategy and Development, Plain language|Comments Off on Gusty Winds May Exist

You are not the customer

-Pamela Kostur

Are personas a thing of the past? I recently gave a presentation to the Toronto Content Strategy Meetup Group on Connecting Content to the Customer Experience. Afterwards, someone mentioned that she was happy to hear someone talk about personas because at her company, they had decided that personas were over, period.

In spite of some criticisms of personas (that they’re not all inclusive, that they’re artificial, fictitious, and not scientific, that personas can’t talk back), I believe that using personas is more beneficial than not using personas when it comes to connecting content to people.

Jared Spool points out (in a 2007 blog post which is still relevant, perhaps even more so with so-called smart technologies on the rise), “If you create a design without using personas, I’ll promise you the sun will continue to rise on schedule, without variation. The universe will remain intact. However, how do you know you’re actually meeting the needs of your users?”

Personas are hard workers

Unless you’re designing or writing exclusively for yourself, your team, or your company, you can’t really represent your customer. You are not the customer. Your organization and your team are not the customer. Even if you are also a customer of the organization you work for, you bring the organization’s biases to the table. You can’t help it. Personas will help to keep you honest, and the best personas are based on research.

customer at core
The customer is at the core of all your content decisions.

Imagine shadowing members of a call centre team to learn what they really do. You’re listening in on the phone as Sharon looks up information online, asks her colleagues, and refers to the sticky notes all over her desk as she looks for answers for her customers. When you interact with the people who are going to be using your content, you can develop great personas that reflect their needs. Your approach changes from “this doesn’t make sense to me” to “this doesn’t make sense to Sharon, the call centre employee because…”

Personas tell a story

Done well, a persona contains everything you’ve learned from your research. They tell a story about the people using your product, and include a face and a name that help you to remember who you’re writing for. Shared with everyone on the team, personas keep everyone on the same page.

Uninformed personas are still better than none

Sadly, using uninformed personas may lead organizations to think they are customer-centric when in fact, they haven’t engaged with any real people at all. If you don’t or can’t do the field work, you can still create personas based on best practices from other similar organizations, or based on information you gather from peer reviews, your sales or support teams.

Real world stories are always better, but even without adequate field research, personas still help you to make the shift from thinking about users to thinking about people. And, that’s who your content is for.


March 3rd, 2014|Content analysis, Content Strategy and Development|Comments Off on You are not the customer
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