• Message to the Masses

    This week, we bring you an Adaptive Path Founder Emeritus to our blog.

    Indi Young is an accomplished author, speaker and friend of Adaptive Path. As a founder she helped set Adaptive Path on it’s course and continues to inspire designers with her book Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior.

    To learn more about Indi or to find some of her essays, head over here.

    Message to the Masses

    The other evening at the dinner table, I happened to look at the pamphlet my boyfriend was unfolding from the stack of mail. It was from the human resources group at his company. My boyfriend is a research scientist for Bayer, just so you get a tiny idea of where his mind is half the time. Me—you’re already familiar with my kinds of thoughts in user experience. So he and I were a little surprised to read:


    I had a sneaking suspicion that I was reading a message aimed at someone other than us. Why the reference to a car? Which groups make cars a significant emblem in their lives? To be completely honest, neither my boyfriend nor I take our vehicles to the car wash. I barely get my car in for an oil change on time once every eight months or so. If we were the types to polish our Mustang in the driveway, then maybe this analogy would work, but we’re not. As members of the 40-50 set, my boyfriend and I spend much more time looking after our health than looking after our cars. Likewise, we are pretty familiar with the details of our medical plans.

    So why did Bayer waste the paper sending us this message? It read like a non sequitur mouthed by a distracted elderly relative. So we opened the pamphlet to see if a different message was inside that we might want to learn. We saw this:


    “Use your preventative care benefits.” Ah, here was the crux of the message. They wanted to remind us of this benefit.

    The rest of the page I can only rant about. So skip this paragraph if you’re inclined. The “Exercise” message we ignored, since we both run, swim, cycle and compete in race events. “Cut out one can of regular soda,” well since neither of us drink soda at all, the message was pointless. And there was that vague “Manage” verb describing what to do about stress. Curious, I read the final paragraph and got annoyed. “Walk a little farther, drink more water, and snuff out that cigarette.” For gods’ sake, Bayer! Why pester us about stuff we don’t have problems with? I didn’t even actually read the little introductory paragraph until the day I wrote this. Check it out. What a pithy piece of wisdom, don’t you think? Who does the writer intend to lecture wish such banalities?

    After reading the pamphlet, I felt completely offended by the Bayer human resources group and I threw the thing in the recycling. Was that the reaction they had intended when they spent the money to write and distribute this message? Obviously, no … They intended to urge people to spend a little on preventative checkups so they could perhaps net a few unhealthy folks and help get them on track, thereby reducing costs overall on health insurance for their employees. That’s a reasonable goal, sure.

    I guarantee Bayer has a database of its employees and knows whether a person has ever checked an “I smoke” box on a form. I guarantee they can ask the various health insurance providers to look up the names of folks who haven’t been for a routine exam in five years. It would take less than 30 minutes for the lowliest IT intern to get that set of names to the human resources group. Is this illegal, to target messages at people who smoke who haven’t had a checkup recently? Is it illegal to ask for a record of employee visits to the doctor’s office in the past five years? Perhaps.

    As for the soda-drinking, since that isn’t a sin that has made it to a checkbox on a form yet, the writer could have asked rather than accused. The way the piece is written, the writer assumes the reader drinks at least two cans of regular soda a day. And the walking is an accusation, too, that the reader just sits on the couch, and isn’t already training for a trail marathon or going mountain biking and rock climbing with her friends. Then there’s the title—don’t get me started about gerunds as the first word in a title, “Taking Control.”

    But this isn’t an essay about how to write better messages. It’s a reminder to choose specifically defined groups of people to write to. It’s about focusing on the reader rather than department assignments like “get more folks to sign up for routine physicals” and “remind people that smoking and regular soda is bad.” Can you clearly see the person you are writing to? If not, then your message is too broad and will fail to connect with the majority of the readers. Worse, it will annoy those it isn’t intended for, or even offend them. Envisioning the reader is something we all learn in our writing classes, but forget as soon as the stern pressure of “the assignment” bears down on our shoulders.

    With chagrin, I feel like a communist revolutionary chanting, “Power to the people!” But here, unlike communism, “the people” refers to different groups exhibiting different behaviors and motivations, examined within myriad scopes—the developer who reaches out to team mates at their organization for help solving a problem versus the developer who is self-reliant and does not discuss his way through solution-finding.

    Behavior & Motivation Differences in Groups


    I say my message over and over. Whatever you produce must be in explicit support of a particular group. Whatever you produce: pamphlets, web applications, toothbrushes, requirements documents … I expect the folks that do the actual work and make the approvals “get it” and change their ways. Stop producing one product for the masses and start producing three or five products for the conflicting personalities and goals of different groups. Spend more effort and money and time up front to connect with the hearts and minds of the people in these groups, rather than tramping unshod over their uniqueness. Each individual truly believes she or he is unique, yet they will also tell you of the special interests they have in common with others and feel happy to be grouped by those concerns. Let us undertake simply to support them. And, if necessary, let us undertake to change laws that were written with one intent in mind, but inadvertently prevent us from doing something good.

    There are 2 thoughts on this idea

    1. Thomas

      Some guesses: this kind of thing is not produced by Bayer, the employer, but by the health plan they use, probably it’s some sort of template with a field for {$Employer} at the top.

      It’s probably the result of a marketing group at the health plan company that has no knowledge of the policies or interests of their clients (like Bayer), and so can’t really do much more than this kind of vague hand-waving “be healthy” claptrap. It’s almost certainly the product of a committee, which is mostly interesting in funneling down to a message that no one particularly disagrees with, and more importantly, is unlikely to offend or incite complaint. Anything more specific (“you haven’t had a checkup this year: time to go”) could be interpreted as a directive or even a condition of continued coverage.

      In the end, this is the same kind of marketing bullshit that exists in every field. It’s not meant to actually get you to take specific action, it’s meant to keep something top of mind for a few seconds between mailbox and trash can. It’s meant to exist in an ecosystem of noise where repetition matters far far more than content.

    2. Elizabeth

      I suggest you provide meaningful ALT text to the images, so that people who don’t have perfect vision can read the problems you’re blogging about. My vision with glasses is pretty good for my age (mid-50s) and even I have to squint.

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