Before writing any type of technical documentation, whether it’s a short piece of web content or an extensive knowledge system for a complex software product, you need to know who you’re writing to. This goes by many names, such as audience analysis, customer analysis, or user profile. Having an understanding of your audience impacts your writing style, voice, and the method of communication. These are a few things to consider when doing an audience analysis:
- Basic demographics. This includes information such as whether your audience is native to the language you’re writing in, age, gender, and other basic information that gives you an idea of the type of person who will be reading your content.
- Education and background. Writing aimed at an engineer is much different than writing aimed at a recent high-school graduate. And academic writing has a style all its own with specific requirements.
- Industry. Be sure to know if your reader is in a particular industry. Writing something for the end-user of a product is different than writing for a designer or engineer.
- Experience with subject matter. Are you writing for someone who is completely unfamiliar with your subject matter? If so, you will need to provide much more background information than if you are writing to someone who has extensive experience.
One of the best ways to do an audience analysis is to interview people representative of the type of people who will read your documentation. Besides details such as those listed above, ask them how they prefer to get information. Do they like something that’s searchable? If so, your best bet is a web-based knowledge system or online help. Do they want something they can print out and read in their leisure? Then a book-based PDF format might suit the bill. Do they pefer something they can watch and listen to? You may want to create short videos to demonstrate concepts or show how to accomplish tasks.
The important thing is to take the time to think about this before you begin a project. The worst surprise is to spend hours, days, or weeks creating an online information system only to find out that your audience is a group of engineers who just want a damn book they can print out and read while they “relax” at the end of the day.