The right instructions for the right audience

Some of you may know that one of my occasional hobbies is baking bread. It’s one of the few things I do that doesn’t involve a monitor and a keyboard (except when I’m looking for a new recipe). Inspired by the return to BBC television of The Great British Bake Off I decided to be adventurous and try to bake a spelt loaf. Spelt is related to regular wheat, but has slightly different properties so ordinary wheat bread recipes don’t work. Recipes are classic examples of instructional text, and in my search for spelt bread recipes I found some very good examples (including this YouTube video from LucysKitchen, which I was able to follow successfully, as you can see below).

my spelt bread

However, while searching I also came across this recipe, which seems to break several of my favourite rules about writing instructions, and it also raises issues that should be addressed by having a content strategy for your website.

This recipe is full of technical jargon, it is difficult to understand the sequence of steps, and to understand the quantities of each ingredient that the recipe calls for. Perhaps a professional baker would understand what is meant by an “overnight sponge” or a “clear” dough that “drops”, but I didn’t. A professional might also understand quantities given as proportions, but I found the use of percentages very confusing: how can your quantities add up to 169%? (Perhaps I am just a pedant about percentages, but that sort of pedantry comes with the territory when you are a technical writer.)

Two things struck me about this recipe: first of all, as it was published on a publicly accessible web page (I found it through a Google search), and as there was no indication that it was for experienced or professional readers only, it should have been written for a general, non-professional, non-specialist audience. Instead, it was the wrong set of instructions for the audience most likely to read it. A competent technical writer knows they must ask questions about their audience to avoid creating problematic pages like this one.

The second point is that the company that owns this site doesn’t appear to have any policies in place for responding to visitor concerns. (Obviously, they have never even considered a website content strategy.) In March 2010 someone left a comment saying they couldn’t understand the recipe, but it was only in November 2010 – eight months later – that the webmaster replied, apologising and saying “we hope to find the time soon to re-work some of the recipes in a more user friendly way”. It’s now August 2012, and, sadly, the issues haven’t been addressed.

The basic lesson here is clearly “know your audience”. Think about who may be visiting your website and provide the right type of content for those visitors. In this case know you also need to know your competition, as other milling companies have better examples of recipes on their websites (here’s one example). The second point is that your website is a continuous work in progress.  As any content strategist would tell you, as a website owner you have a responsibility to keep their content up to date, and a duty to respond to your readers concerns . This is particularly true when you invite your readers to contribute comments to your page. If your visitors are kind enough to communicate with you by leaving a comment, surely it makes business sense not to ignore them for eight months, and not to leave the questions they raised unresolved two years later?

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