Rediscovering Communication

More Than Words

Content that communicates

A column by Colleen Jones
August 6, 2007

Blogs, wikis, emails, Web sites, virtual worlds, text messages—oh, my. Today we have more ways of communicating than ever. The challenge? If businesses aren’t careful, what they’re trying to say—and what their customers are trying to say—can get lost in the complexity. Think about your experiences as a customer. How many times have you received an email message that was meaningless to you, because its images didn’t download—or perhaps because it offered a message that wasn’t relevant to your life? How often have you come across a customer service page on a beautiful Web site, only to find its information unhelpful—or even contradictory to what the company’s brochure says? Have you ever called an interactive voice response system, or IVR system—aka those darn phone menus—that wasn’t at least a little irritating? All the technology in the world can’t replace the nitty-gritty job of communication.

UX professionals can help people rediscover real communication. It’s not just writing for the Web—though that’s critical. The intention of my new column is to aid this rediscovery, starting with a look at what communication is. I’ll be focusing on business and relationship marketing contexts, but many of these ideas apply in other contexts, too.

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The ability to communicate seems obvious, because we encounter many forms of communication daily. We read the news, shop online, review our bills, write or comment on a blog, and more. But ask anyone what communication is and how to make it better, and you’ll hear some hemming and hawing. We’re so close to it, we can’t describe it—it’s tacit knowledge. And, ironically, I think it’s even more tacit to UX professionals. I’ve done my share of hemming and hawing on this subject, so I don’t claim to have the perfect definition. But I find three perspectives provide a useful start:

  1. A model
  2. A theoretical view
  3. An experience strategy

The Basic Model: Quiet the Noise

You might have seen some incarnation or other of the classic Shannon-Weaver communication model, which has its basis in information theory. [1] This model describes how noise, or interference, is a major way in which we lose communications, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1—Shannon-Weaver model of communication
Shannon-Weaver model of communication

Shannon and Weaver focused on the technical aspects of communications—how to get information from one system to another without degrading the message. But their basic model is useful even when thinking about the social and psychological aspects of communication. Here’s a variation on their model that highlights three types of noise we encounter today—technical noise, semantic noise, and organizational noise, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2—Types of noise that interfere with communication
Technical, semantic, and organizational noise interfering with communication

Technical Noise

Technical noise occurs within and can disrupt a communications channel. An example of technical noise is Outlook’s blocking the images in an HTML marketing email message. The customer doesn’t receive the message in its intended form, so literally doesn’t get the message. UX professionals can help solve this problem by developing best practices for email formatting—for example, ensuring headlines, calls to action, and key messages are not in images. Usability and accessibility standards largely address the problem of technical noise. I like to think of this as optimizing a channel of communication for use.

For large Web sites and multichannel communications, a major source of technical noise is content and document management technologies. These technologies are critical, but we spend too much time figuring out how to get the system to deliver the information and not enough time thinking about what information is useful and how it should communicate to customers. Even Forrester Research acknowledges this problem, calling for less focus on managing content and more focus on the customer’s use of content. [2]

The mobile channel, IVR, kiosks, and other interactive communications channels have technical noise considerations worthy of their own articles. Suffice it to say that UX professionals must be involved in addressing the usability and accessibility issues for these channels.

Semantic Noise

Semantic noise is a problem with language or interpretation. An example of semantic, or language, noise is a company’s using different terms for the same concept in various communications. For instance, a wireless company might refer to a mobile phone as a phone on the Web site, but a device on the tech support IVR. UX professionals can help identify what term is most appropriate for customers and recommend its consistent use.

A more extreme example of semantic noise occurs when a customer calls a company and reaches a representative who isn’t fluent in the customer’s language. Perhaps the customer’s idiomatic phrasings confuse the representative, and the representative’s non-idiomatic phrasings sound awkward to the customer. A less extreme example is when a call center representative uses jargon that, to the customer, could just as well be Greek—for example, saying power on when meaning to turn on a mobile phone. UX professionals can help solve these kinds of communication challenges. We expect call center representatives to diagnose and solve customer problems in minutes, so they must follow the steps through which their computer applications guide them. They must also rely heavily on product, service, and other content on the corporate intranet and Web site—usually reading it out loud. So designing call center applications that provide the right guidance and intranet content that uses customer-friendly terminology can go a long way.

Let’s not forget interpretive semantic noise, which occurs when the customer receives the intended message in the right language, but still doesn’t get it. One example is organizing information on a Web site from the company or organization’s perspective instead of the customer’s perspective. Thankfully, information architecture can correct this problem on Web sites. But what about on other channels? When the prompts on the main menu of a bank’s IVR are a list of its internal departments rather than the tasks customers want to complete, customers are in trouble. Interpretation of the prompts on an IVR is especially noisy. There are no visuals, just spoken words. My experience designing and testing IVRs for the wireless industry has made it clear that, if the wording of menu options does not have the right balance of concision and descriptive detail, customers cannot interpret them well enough to choose the right option.

Other examples of interpretive noise lie in the context, tone, examples, and other such subtleties. The informal, irreverently fun tone on the Virgin Mobile Web site—even on its login page, shown in Figure 3—likely is a hit with the targeted customer segment. However, this tone wouldn’t work on a medical Web site designed for elderly people.

Figure 3—Informal language on the Virgin Mobile Login page
Informal language on the Virgin Mobile Login page

In the site’s Help, shown in Figure 4, a simile comparing auto-pay service with valet service might confuse customers if the target customers are not familiar with valet services.

Figure 4—Interpretive noise in the Help on the Virgin Mobile Web site
Interpretive noise in the Help on the Virgin Mobile Web site

Organizational Noise

If organizational silos were sound, they’d be deafening thunder claps. Many companies have channel silos that operate independently and even compete against each other—for example, store sales versus Web sales versus phone sales. A siloed structure means no one is really responsible for or able to implement a cross-channel communication experience, involving message coordination, content consistency and relevancy, and the optimization of messages for channels. Employees working in a channel try to keep customers using only their channel—when, in reality, customers might prefer to use multiple channels.

Peter Merholz has talked about encountering these types of silos in the financial services industry. [3] I experienced such silos at Cingular Wireless, where I watched customers looking puzzled as if their amount due were different on their paper bill, their online bill, and the IVR. (If there’s any communication that customers check via multiple channels, it’s the amount due.) Focusing on a strategy that unites channels can help overcome these silos. I was part of the company’s UX group, and we focused on customer self-service, not a solitary channel. With the help of an executive advocate, we made strides in overcoming the challenges of channel silos. We completed work on the Web site, the IVR, store kiosks, store collateral, welcome collateral—sent with all phone shipments—call center applications, mobile applications, and more. The pay off? Boosts in customer satisfaction and reduced customer service costs.

Many leading retailers get the importance of channel integration. Circuit City emphasizes its three ways to buy—in the store, on the Web, and on the phone, as shown in Figure 5. Circuit City, REI, Best Buy, and others also let customers order online, then pick up their purchases from a nearby store.

Figure 5—Buying from Circuit City via three channels
Buying from Circuit City via three channels

For some products, offers to call customers to help answer questions about the products, as shown in Figure 6. I look forward to such retail channel integrations influencing service providers, too.

Figure 6—Customer-service calls on Amazon
Customer-service calls on Amazon

Later Communication Models: It Goes Both Ways

People have praised the original Shannon-Weaver model for its simplicity, but also criticized it for not reflecting the complexity and interactivity of human-to-human communication. I find three goals of later communication models helpful in addressing its deficiencies:

  1. Emphasizing the interaction between senders and receivers, or two-way communication
  2. Demonstrating how, when the receiver communicates back to the original sender, the same opportunities for noise occur
  3. Focusing more on interpretation

Today, on the Web alone, customers have plenty of opportunities to provide feedback to and about companies and their products—through email, customer reviews, blogs, discussion forums, and customer ratings. Companies need to pay attention to what customers are saying to them and about them to enable better communication with them in the future. Companies also need to facilitate an ongoing connection with their customers.

Context Is King: Social Construction and Rhetorical Theories

Communication models hint at the importance of context. For more guidance on tackling contextual subtleties, theories of social construction and rhetoric are helpful.

Social Construction

Social construction is a social science theory, positing that we form reality through social interactions, including communication. [4] A social construct is what a group of people agree to accept as reality or act upon as though it is reality. For instance, we act as though money has value, so it does. On Second Life, people act as though Linden Dollars have value, so they do. Taken to extremes, social construction can get into some interesting philosophical discussions worthy of a beer or two at a pub. Applied to communication, the theory leads to some useful concepts [5]:

  • discourse—All forms of communication that contribute to a social construct—such as an article, conversation, or blog post.
  • discourse community—A group of people who create, use, and interpret discourse that has a common focus—for example, UX professionals, cancer survivors, game players, and so on.
  • discourse forum—The location or channel where the discourse takes place—perhaps a blog, meeting, or publication.
  • discourse conventions—The techniques, formats, and characteristics of the discourse. These are not static; they evolve.
    • These conventions might be tied to community characteristics like the formality of the community’s tone, the words the community typically uses, and recurring values or themes the community expresses.
    • These conventions might be tied to a specific forum, or channel—for example, print newspapers have always had mastheads appearing at the top of the front page. In more recent years, many newspapers such as The Oregonian also use a modern-day discourse convention, including teasers in or near the masthead, as shown in Figure 7.
Figure 7The Oregonian includes teasers above the masthead
Teasers above The Oregonian’s masthead
  • discourse analysis—The examination of forums of discourse with the goal of discovering conventions of discourse and their meaning. For example, when preparing to communicate with gamers, you might study some gamer blogs or forums to get a sense of the words gamers use. You might examine several customer service Web sites in your industry to understand the types of information customers expect to find on your customer service Web site.
  • speaker—Someone communicating to the discourse community. Typically, the community won’t accept a speaker who is new to the community and doesn’t follow discourse conventions. A familiar or credible speaker has more leeway in using the conventions and even starts new ones.

These concepts, in turn, lead to some important customer experience implications. UX professionals need to:

  • Understand how our customers communicate and their expectations for communication.
    • When doing user research, include discourse or communication analysis that identifies discourse conventions and their meanings from typical Web sites, publications, or other communication channels your targeted customers use.
    • Document these discourse conventions by adding a communication dimension to user personas or profiles and scenarios.
  • Stay aware of changing conventions and expectations for a specific channel such as the Web. We shouldn’t be surprised that communication conventions change; they’ve been changing since communication began. These days, “Web 2.0” Web sites have visual characteristics such as pale backgrounds and very large headers as well as interaction conventions such as instant validation.
  • Know our company or brand’s credibility and role as a speaker—for example:
    • When we have to influence our customers to accept our company or brand as a new speaker, we can show how our brand values align with customers’ values.
    • When our company or brand is familiar or credible to customers, we can take risks with communication conventions.
    • When our company or brand might not be accepted as a speaker, especially in social networking contexts, we need to follow communication conventions.
    • Sometimes it’s better to let other people such as experts or customers speak, especially in social networking contexts.
  • Understand when our customers are motivated—and when they are not motivated—to speak.
    • If our customers are so diverse that they do not have a strong common focus, they might not really be a discourse community, so offering them discourse forums—for example, social networking features—on our company Web site might not be effective.
    • Or if our customers do have that common focus, but are already speaking on several other Web sites, they might not be motivated to speak on our company’s Web site.

For example, GameTap understands that it’s supporting a community of gamers and provides a forum for the gamers to speak, shown in Figure 8. United by their common interest in gaming, the members are motivated to speak on that forum. However, a forum might not be a wise choice for a company that is not supporting a community with such a strong united focus.

Figure 8—Forum on GameTap
Forum on GameTap


Rhetoric is the study of using language effectively and persuasively. It goes hand in hand with social construction, because if we use language effectively and persuasively, we can have an impact on what people agree to as reality. [6] Social construction helps us focus on how customers communicate. Rhetoric helps us consider other aspects of context.

Rhetoric begins with a concept from Aristotle that remains influential to this day—persuasive appeals [7]:

  • logos—the appeal to reason
  • ethos—the appeal to a speaker’s or author’s credibility or authority
  • pathos—the appeal to emotion

Aristotle stressed including a mix of these appeals as a fail-safe way of influencing everyone. (For more background on rhetoric, see my previous article on UXmatters, “When ROI Isn’t Enough: Making Persuasive Cases for User-Centered Design.”)

Today, using rhetoric is more about understanding your customers or a situation well enough to know which type of appeal to emphasize—or de-emphasize. For instance, when someone who has just been diagnosed with an unfamiliar disease visits the Centers for Disease Control or Prevention Web site for information, the content needs to be sensitive to emotions such as worry and apprehensiveness. Likewise, when I worked in the wireless industry, I observed the role of emotions time and again in customers’ interpretations of and reactions to bills. In that context, sensitivity to emotions such as anger and frustration is key. In either of these contexts, sticking to logos—facts, quantitative evidence, and so on—might be best, because adding emotional language or tone to an already emotional situation increases the chances for interpretive noise. For instance, in my experience with IVRs, customers who checked their amount due did not like hearing the number from an all-too-chirpy automated voice.

Another aspect of emotions to consider is the company’s or brand’s attributes—which ideally align with the target customers’ values—and how to convey them. For instance, Figures 9 and 10 show the carefree, clever branding of Bliss Spa. Figure 9 shows a pithy, often-rhyming product description with clever, light-hearted text that appeals to pathos and testimonials that appeal to ethos. As Figure 10 shows, a Bliss product description with a clever, light-hearted introduction appeals to pathos, but also describes quantitative results that appeal to logos. While they don’t ignore logos—and duly note a product’s quantitative results—it’s not their emphasis.

Figure 9—Product description and endorsements appealing to pathos and ethos
Bliss product description
Figure 10—Product description appeals to pathos, but quantitative results appeal to logos
Another Bliss product description

Modern rhetoric expands the definition of language to encompass more than words, accentuating the role of graphics and actions in being persuasive. [7, 8] We can extend this idea to video and every other type of content available to us today. It’s important to look at the rhetorical influence of an entire communication experience, not just the words. Modern rhetoric also points out more subtle aspects of persuasion. For instance, identification theory states that emphasizing common interests is powerfully influential. Consequently, a speaker who establishes his or her ethos as being like the targeted customer or being an actual customer has subtle, but strong influence. That’s what makes testimonials, online reviews, and related communications so significant.

So, how can we make these ideas work for us? Here are some practical approaches:

  • Include rhetorical considerations in your user profiles or personas and scenarios, such as:
    • emotion and value—belief considerations
    • which persuasive appeal to emphasize
    • brand attribute considerations—and how they align with customer values
    • other important contextual considerations
  • Determine what text, video, images, or content tactics best address the communication considerations you’ve identified in your profiles or personas and scenarios.

Cross-Channel Communication Is the Customer Experience

Peter Merholz and Jared Spool have recently discussed “experience strategies,” “envisionments,” and similar concepts—picturing the ideal user experience for a product or Web site. [3, 9] For large companies who are offering ongoing services, seeking long-term customer relationships, or dealing with multi-channel customer interactions, communication largely is the product or experience. The Web is increasingly the core channel, but now the Web offers multiple forums and even worlds. So, I like to look at communication from the viewpoint of the ideal experience for customers.

Successful customer-centered communication is

  • clear—Communicate simply, using your customers’ words, and optimize communication for the channel.
  • consistent—Communicate consistently across channels and within channels.
  • credible—Signal credibility in different ways, depending on the context.
  • complete—Answer customers’ questions and information needs.
  • convincing—Include an appropriate mix of persuasive appeals.
  • correct—Make sure your communication is free of errors and regularly updated.
  • customized—Make your communication highly relevant, meaningful, and even personalized to your customers.
  • connected—Encourage customers to interact with your company and with other customers.

Successful communication also ensures customers have

  • the right information
  • in the right amount
  • at the right time
  • through the right channel
  • in the right format and style

Here’s hoping a look back at the nature of communication will help us all carry communication forward to improve user experience. 

Special thanks to Nick Sabadosh and Melissa Read, Ph.D., for their helpful comments.


[1] Shannon, Claude E., and Warren Weaver. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1949.

[2] McNabb, Kyle. “Use Persuasive Content to Improve The Customer Experience: What Information and Knowledge Management Professionals Can Do.” Forrester Research, December 7, 2006. Retrieved August 1, 2007.

[3] Merholz, Peter. “Beyond Transactions: Experience Strategies for Financial Services.” Adaptive Path Blog, 2007. Retrieved August 1, 2007.

[4] Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966.

[5] Porter, James E. Audience and Rhetoric: An Archaeological Composition of the Discourse Community. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1992.

[6] Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1st ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1962.

[7] Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg, eds. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, 2nd ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.

[8] Kostelnick, Charles, and Michael Hassett. Shaping Information: The Rhetoric of Visual Conventions. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 2003.

[9] Spool, Jared. “Knowledge Navigator Deconstructed: Building an Envisionment.” User Interface Engineering, June 19, 2007. Retrieved August 1, 2007.

President at Content Science

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Colleen JonesA pioneer of content strategy, Colleen is author of The Content Advantage: The Science of Succeeding at Digital Business Through Effective Content and founder of Content Science, an end-to-end content company that turns content insights into impact. She has advised and trained hundreds of leading brands and organizations to help them close the content gap in achieving their digital transformation. A passionate entrepreneur, Colleen has led Content Science in developiing the content-intelligence software ContentWRX, publishing the online magazine Content Science Review, and offering certifications through their online Content Science Academy. She has earned recognition as a top instructor on LinkedIn Learning and as a Content Change Agent by Society of Technical Communication’s Intercom Magazine. She is also one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing and one of the Top 50 Most Influential Content Strategists. Colleen holds a B.A. in English and Technical Writing and an M.A. in Technical Communication from James Madison University.  Read More

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