Analyzing Users — A Unique Challenge
By Emma Baumann & Erik Sorensen
Have you ever had to write a document intended for someone else to read? Itís probably safe to say that all of us have had to write for other people, such as a report for a teacher, a memo for an employee, or a note to a family member. When writing these documents, we must consider the audience and how they will be using the document. The above examples, however, are written for only one user. In technical communication, we experience creating documentation for a vast amount of users and for a variety of tasks.
Analyzing the target audience is an important part of document planning. Some of the documentation that technical communicators create is for a very specific target audience—a brochure about teenage female health issues, for example, would be targeted toward females between the ages of 13Ė18. But when it comes to online documentation, like a tutorial for a popular online software program, it can be almost impossible to identify and analyze every potential user. Carefully selecting a set of user examples during the first stages of analysis is very important; consider which users are most likely to use the documentation and which users can be easily researched.
Researching methods to gather data on users include conducting interviews, observational research, and questionnaires. Interviewing allows the technical communicator to ask in-depth questions about how the reader uses and feels about the documentation. In Writing Software Documentation: A Task-Oriented Approach (2003), Thomas Barker explains that in an interview you can encounter potential users of the program and often learn enough to design a documentation system that will satisfy your writing goals. Observing potential users allows the writer to see exactly how the program is used and the sequence in which tasks are done. Usability tests are common forms of observation in technical communication. And questionnaires also work well because they can help the writer gather a lot of general data on users and tasks.
Throughout the process of analyzing the audience, you must also be mindful of usersí different cultural backgrounds. It is important to note that culture does not only refer to different nationalities. According to Barbara Heifferon, author of Writing in the Health Professions (2005), cultures exist within personal relationships and families, workplaces and organizations, as well as states and countries. Culture can come in to play in any communication situation. Consider a doctor trying to communicate with a foreign patient who does not want to rely on medication, but rather on sacrificial ways of healing. Doesnít sound very easy, does it? In the same way, technical communicators have to consider every userís point of view and to find a way to write a document accordingly.
When youíre a technical communicator, writing a document isnít the same as it was back in high school, when reports were only written for one teacher to read. Writing isnít just for a grade anymore—writing now has a task—oriented purpose and a wide, diverse audience. The documentation you create can help users get the job done quickly and efficiently—or it can completely confuse them and cause them to give up on their project. Are you up for the challenge?