Find out what vocabulary your audience uses

Sarah Winters, , User research

If you don’t use the vocabulary your audience is using, it’s going to be a lot harder, or even impossible, for them to find your information.

However, lab research and the like can be expensive and sometimes we just don’t have time to set this up. Well, there’s a wealth of information about your audience right in front of you – it’s free, it’s easy to find and you can get to it while you are sitting in your PJs if you like.

Online discussion forums are your friend

Forums are full of people using language they use every day. Language they search with. Language we should use to help them find useful content.

Mental health case study

A few years ago I was given a wide brief: “we need a section on mental health”.


I spoke to a lot of people in the medical profession. They all had different ideas about what we should tell people, including:

  • when to see a doctor,
  • what you can do in an emergency,
  • why you should take the medication you are prescribed,
  • ways to tell your boss/teacher so you can get appropriate help.

All this seemed very sensible.

We had no money for research and no analytics. I had to get everything from desk research and have it published in 3 weeks.

I decided to go to forums to see what people were posting. It was quite hard not to feel totally helpless when there’s so many people talking about things that can cause them a lot of distress.

But there were themes to what they were talking about. I kept looking at the common words and the things people wanted the most.

“Who are all these people?”

I found that the main thing people wanted to know was ‘who are all these people I’ve been asked to talk to?’ A lot of the audience on the forums just went to their doctor. Easy.

Suddenly they were told they might need to see a counsellor, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, community nurse etc or several of these people. The audience didn’t know the difference between these professionals or why one professional was chosen over any other.

When we hear about something for the first time or are distressed, it’s obvious that we are going to forget to ask questions. So it’s understandable people were coming out of their doctor’s office and wondering what was going on and who to ask for help.

From what I was reading in forums, that was certainly the case. Some people weren’t willing to talk to people they knew because they were worried about the reaction they would get. Some just wanted more information. So they turned to the anonymous internet to get some answers.

Health care system vs audience need

The professionals were focussing on keeping people safe. And you can see why. But the audience was a step behind. For a lot of people on forums, they had just decided to see their doctor and they were being passed onto the right care.

But no-one had told them who was who or why they’d be seeing one person over another.

I started right there: a ‘who’s who’ guide to mental health. Then I went on to all the other things the forums were asking like how to help a relative or when to call emergency services.

The ‘who’s who’ guide consistently out-performed any other page in the section by quite a margin.

I went back to the forums every couple of months to see if there was anything missing. At times, I saw people referring to my pages as a source of help. They won’t know that it was them who helped me that put the pages together in the first place.

Forums are community spirit

Forums are like little mini-worlds of your specific audience. A community of people who are sharing their language, mental models and thought processes, and they are right in front of you.

As long as we have respect for our audience, I think sharing their world and looking at forums to bring them information is ok. It can help you prioritise, structure and write in a more targeted and meaningful way.

You’ll still need to test and iterate your work but it’s a good place to start.

Sign up to our newsletter

Get content design insights sent straight to your inbox.

  • Choose what information you get: (required)