Your Website as a Narrative Device, Part 3: Micronarratives

Jack Aaronson

Updated · Sep 25, 2002

As I mentioned in the first column in this series, a micronarrative is a self-contained story. It contrasts with the macronarrative, which represents the through-line of your entire site.

This week, we will look at examples of micronarratives and discuss how to effectively use them. Specifically, we will look at product reviews, testimonials, product guides, and “expert” and “nonexpert” opinions.

Whom Do You Trust?

All micronarratives have one thing in common: They were written by somebody. The biggest questions I have when reading a micronarrative are: Who is this person? and Can I trust him? In my experience and client research, I find there are fundamentally two types of people (whenever I say something as general as that, I get a ton of mail from people who disagree, but go with me for a moment).

The first type is the “Experts-Only” kind. This person doesn't care what his peers think or what other regular people have to say about the products and services he is looking for. This person only trusts experts. Experts are, after all, supposed to be most knowledgeable on a given subject, right? Why believe your neighbor's parenting advice when you can read a book by Dr. Spock?

The second type of person is the “Everyman,” who wants to know what his peers would do when confronted with a similar situation. This type of person is more community oriented and wants the help of the tribe to reach a decision.

I believe these two types are roughly equal in number out there, though I have not done much quantitative research to prove that. You can bet both types of users are visiting your site. You need to fill their needs very differently.

Appealing to the Experts-Only User

The Experts-Only user doesn't want advice from peers. A customer testimonial is meaningless because, “It's probably some idiot who never read the manual complaining how difficult the product is to use.” What kind of information does appeal to this user, then? The opinions of “experts.” To this end, offers New York Times Book Reviews for books. CDW tells you a product won a PC Magazine award (though it doesn't seem to link to the articles). These people tend to view professional reviewers (like the staff at the store in question) as experts, too. They would trust the staff reviewer more than a customer's review. This type of user responds to expert product guides; reviews from “trusted sources” (e.g., a reputable publication); how-to guides, and even raw comparison charts illustrating feature-to-feature differences.

Appealing to the Everyman

The Everyman sees the world differently than the Experts-Only type. The Everyman wants to know what other people think. He's interested in others' opinions and could use a little comfort and reassurance from people who had to make the same decision he is about to. To the Everyman, expert opinions are nice but not completely trustworthy. Because an expert is paid to be an expert, his objectivity is called into question. Does a book reviewer at Amazon, have some kind of financial incentive to push a certain book this week? Is his opinion clouded by a political mesh we are not aware of? Does send a mixed message by having a lot of advertising on its site for products it “impartially” reviews? These are deep and valid concerns for the Everyman.

Appealing to this type of user means using word of mouth and other community-based peer reviews. Customer reviews and testimonials are great examples of this kind of peer review. Amazon has a feature called “Listmania!” which allows Jane Public to create her own grouping of products and information based on her own experience and knowledge. Companies such as exist solely for this type of user, whereas (with a terribly cluttered, confusing site design and info-glut) sits somewhere in the middle. Its “guides” are both experts and everyday people.

I Have a Split Personality

The question you're asking now is: “Which am I? An Everyman or Experts-Only type?” I already have the answer. You're both. I'm both. In areas in which I feel I am smart and knowledgeable, I am the Experts-Only type. I don't need to waste my time reading about what people less experienced than I am think about a certain product. In other areas, I am the Everyman. I looked into buying a TiVo system last month (which deserves its own series of articles), with no clue about anything. I didn't understand how it worked, how it compared to its competition or even if it was compatible with my TV. I read every user review I could find to see what people like me had decided and how they felt about their decisions. Only then did I decide what to do.

Picking the Right Micronarratives for Your Site

Appealing to the Everyman and the Experts-Only user is a delicate balance. Put opinions and advice on your site from various sources, including both expert and communal advice. Separate them so your users don't confuse the categories. Separating them also limits overwhelming users with too many opinions. Make it easy for users to switch between expert and nonexpert opinions. The Experts-Only user quickly becomes Everyman in a different area of your site.

Finally, when you test a new area, get a few of each user type to take a look and tell you what they think. This will give you both viewpoints.

If you are just joining this series, take a look at the previous columns on ClickZ. Email me for a list of other resources.

Talk to Me!

When are you an Everyman and when are you an Experts-Only user? I am putting together an informal survey and would love to know.

Until next time…


Reprinted from ClickZ.

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