Understanding Audience and Purpose

Understanding the audience and purpose for your technical documentation is the single most important, and often, most neglected step in the writing process. It doesn’t matter how well written, organized, accurate, or complete a document (print or on-line) is. If your instructions do not meet the needs of your intended primary and secondary audiences, your documentation is useless.

  • Primary audiences most often include naive, new, advanced, and expert users–all of whom have very different requirements.
  • Hidden secondary audiences may include sales, marketing, or financial professionals, who often use the technical documentation to highlight how the product works to potential clients, understand the functionality themselves, or to sometimes even make decisions, related to buying products.

Other important secondary audiences might include the trainer at your customer’s company, who uses the instructions to create company-specific training, or customized documentation for their own employees. In other situations, your own colleagues may be an important secondary audience, as the technical documentation is often referred to by internal users.

Given the importance of correctly analyzing the audience and purpose for my documentation deliverables, I have always found the following criteria from the Society for Technical Communication to be a very simple, but effective way to begin:

  • Is the purpose clearly stated?
  • Does the document fulfill the purpose?
  • Is the audience clearly defined?
  • Does the document meet the audience’s needs?

Another very simple way to start thinking about your audience is suggested in Audience Analysis The Easy Way:

What does the audience know about the thing I am writing about?

  • “Basically, you can assume that some of your users are supreme experts in the technology, some of them are complete greenhorns, and everyone else falls somewhere in between. The trick is to write for the greenhorn without offending the expert.”
  • What does the user want to know about the thing I am writing about?
    Most users want to know “what the product does, how to install it, how to configure it, how to use it, how to respond to alarms and notifications, and how to maintain it”.

Clearly identifying and understanding the mixed nature of your audience (novice through expert) and their multiple purposes (understanding, installing, configuring, using, responding to alarms & notifications, and maintaining the product), as early as possible in the writing process, can help save you countless hours of rework later in the development cycle.

In your own documentation deliverables, what do you see as the main trick of satisfying the novice, without offending the expert? What secondary audiences do you most often encounter? How important are these secondary audiences in shaping your content and organizational decisions?

For helpful tips on getting started, check out the steps here: Conducting an Audience Analysis. For more detailed information on audience analysis, these articles are also helpful: Online Technical Writing: Audience AnalysisTechnical Writing Audience, and Designing for the Social Web: The Usage Lifecycle.

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