The effectiveness of any technical documentation depends on how well the technical writer has tailored its content to appeal to the target audience. But in many cases, tailoring content for the target audience is not the challenge.
The key challenge is how to identify and analyze the audience. So it’s not strange when you see technical writers asking “How can you tailor your content to appeal to a specific audience when you don’t even know them?” This is one of the reasons why users don’t read your manuals.
Audience analysis is perhaps the single most important aspect of technical writing. If you do it right, your customer support team will heave a sigh of relief and you can slash your customer support cost.
But what happens when you don’t hit the bull’s eye? You’ll have to spend more on customer support. Perhaps, create a new manual, and you can imagine the dent it can put on your product’s name as a brand, especially when your competitors are doing it right. Now you can avoid such a scenario by simply analyzing your audience.
What exactly is audience analysis?
Audience analysis is the process of identifying the specific audience you intend to write for, assessing their needs, interests, and level of knowledge in the subject so you can tailor your content to match their expectations.
So the first step is identifying your audience. There are 4 key categories of audience in technical writing. Sometimes these audiences overlap and you can create a sub category in any group if that will help you identify your audience better.
Types of Audience
People in this category understand how the product works inside and out. In fact, these experts designed the product, they’ve tested it and they know exactly how it works.
Most of the people in this category are in research and development areas in technology and some of them work with the government. Some of them are highly educated with advanced degrees in their fields and some of them are professionals in academic settings.
But one of the major communication challenges these experts face, is how to explain in very simple terms, how the product works. They often face this challenge whenever they intend to communicate with people in the category of executive and technicians.
Audience in this category are the technical experts who build, operate, maintain and fix the products that the experts theorize about. But these technicians deal with the technical aspect of designing the product practically.
This category of audience are decision makers. They make legal, administrative, political, business and economic decisions on what the experts have designed. If what the experts have designed is a new product, they decide if it’s safe for the public and if it should be licensed or not.
The executive also decide if a product should be marketed or not. Audience in this category often have basic knowledge about the product.
Audience in this category have the least technical knowledge about the product. But they are often very interested in the product. They are the product users, they want to use the product for some specific reasons, either to complete a task, to solve a problem or for personal use.
They do their best to understand the product by reading help manuals, user guides, watching tutorial videos and through any other way they can learn about it.
You’ll have to identify what audience category you intend to write for. Once you identify that, you can to tailor your content to their needs and interests…
How to tailor your content to your audience needs
Considering the following can help you tailor your content to the needs of your target audience:
Audience Background (knowledge, experience and training)
One of the key questions you’ll have to answer is how much knowledge, experience and training should you expect in your target audience? If you write for the least knowledgeable segment of the audience, others may see the documentation as boring and irrelevant, and vice versa if you write for the most intelligent segment of the audience.
The way out? Many writers often go for the majority of readers and sacrifice the minority that needs more help. But you can include additional information in appendixes or include cross-references to help the segment of the audience you left out.
Needs and Interests
Your help documentation doesn’t have to be boring. Focus on what the documentation is all about based on the needs and interests of your target audience. Don’t lose track of what the audience want to use the documentation for.
If you’re writing for a predominantly male or female audience or a specific profession or age category, use terminologies and languages they are familiar with. A careful consideration of all this can help you tailor your content to match your audience interests and expectations. This is one of the best practices of writing help documentations and manuals.
Create a persona
Personas are fictional characters and product users and they are your core target audience. While personas are not real people they should represent actual people throughout your writing process.
Make up names, needs, interests, location, and personal details for your persona to make them real. Now focus on writing for your persona as if you’re interacting with him or her. This is one of the easiest methods of writing for your target audience.
Once you have an in-depth understanding of your target audience, you can take advantage of a help authoring tool to make your writing easier. Some of such tools are free, such as HelpNDoc.
HelpNDoc allows you to create several different file formats from just one source file including HTML, CHM, ePub, Kindle eBooks, PDF, Word, web based documentations, iPhone specific websites, and Qt Help files. With that, you can publish your tailored content exactly the way your target audience expect.
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