Writing For an Audience

Audience Awareness

Business and technical writing is often, arguably always, composed for the consumption of an audience, known or imagined. In formal writing on Technical Communication, audiences are often referred to as “discourse communities”. The term "user community" is also common, and less academic. "Readership" is another less technical term. Undoubtedly there are more. Could the quantity of labels be interpreted as evidence of the significance of the "audience"?

There are several main factors that writers need to consider in audience analysis.

The primary principle of documenting should be to identify all types of users . . . Having identified all of the different types of users . . ., it is then  necessary to think about their information needs. Different end-user audiences will have different information needs, and different developer audiences will also have different needs, depending on the tasks they will perform. The information should then be translated into a set of “information items”.

BS ISO/IEC 6592 Standard (2000, p. 3)

Consider a document designed for a readership (audience) versus a document designed solely for the sake of its content's storage. Which would be the more usable?

Studies such as that by De Jong and Lenz (1996) suggest that technical writers often lack an in-depth understanding of the audiences for whom they are writing. Writers predict very few of the problems that confront the users of their documents. Also, writers often disagree on the nature of audiences and their knowledge requirements. Studies indicate that key to the production of effective documentation is the prior collecting of knowledge about its audience and analysis of audience opinion regarding the content and usability of the documentation.

Commitment to the concept that industry is a customer-satisfying system - not a one-way product delivery pipe - is essential for business people to understand, and communicators especially. This sentiment must be reflected in all consumer audience-targeted communications, and technical documentation is no exception.

Genre

This term is defined variously and in some disciplines (e.g. Media Studies, with whom Technical Communication shares some theoretical common ground) acquires peculiar importance and attracts voluminous empirical exploration. For Technical Communication purposes however, I will here define "genre" as follows:

Classes of texts that through content similarity, audience similarity, or usage similarity become distinguishable from other classes of texts.

The Writer’s Perspective

An attitudinal spectrum exists with regard to sense-/meaning-making through documents and the importance of understanding audiences in the process of sense-/meaning-making. At one end, the audience is seen as a passive receptacle, basically a “sponge” that absorbs messages with limited filtering or discernment. At the spectrum's opposing extremity, the audience receives and applies information on its own terms, applying experience and judgement, interpreting and purposing according to necessity, ability, and attitude.*

*Don't these two perceptions appear to parallel quite closely the "hypodermic" and "uses-and-gratifications" models of Media usage? I told you that Technical Communication and Media Studies share commonalities, didn't I?

While the first audience is knowable because it is essentially a simple blank easily filled by information of the writer's choosing, the second audience is a complex mosaic, too atomised and diverse to be addressed precisely so provisioned on the basis of best guess.

Methods of Audience Analysis

To create effective texts, technical communicators must analyze real audiences and obtain a detailed comprehension of their needs. Without such prior work, the technical communicator can only proceed on the basis of best guess. Through analysis a priori, s/he he eliminates the task of imagining the audience's needs and then writing speculatively.

The Reader-Centred Approach

Existence, Need, Knowledge, Maintenance, Application

A document's design must correspond directly with the findings of the audience research. Any document that is "reader-centred" is usable and satisfies the user's informational requirements, economically and clearly.

According to Hackos and Reddish (1998), usability is attained if a text:

  • presents workflows that are intuitive;
  • supports the user's learning style;*
  • functions suitably in the user’s working environment;
  • incorporates familiar design;
  • features consistency in presentation, making it reliable and easy to use; and
  • uses language and illustrations that are familiar or easily comprehended.

*This is questionable. The validity of "learning styles is debated and the possibility of any document supporting all possible "learning styles" seems remote.

Toms (1982) offers a list of points to consider when trying to improve the efficiency of technical texts:

Retrievability – depends on

  • the topics presented - do users have before them what they need to know?;
  • the logical organization of the various topics covered;
  • the quality of the contents table, index, and other access features;
  • the presence and effectiveness of labels, signposts, and other pointers;
  • the accuracy of cross-references and similar interlinking elements; and
  • its relationship with other documents - is it standalone, or does the document rely on other documents?

Understandability – depends on

  • written style, including the location and clarity of definitions (glossaries); and
  • the non-textual elements that constitute presentation, i.e. layout, figures, and symbols.

Appropriateness – depends on

  • technical completeness;
  • technical accuracy; and
  • the level of detail in the information, i.e. not too much and not too little.

To Sum Up

  • All writing is for users, not for the writing itself. Users - not a demonstration of topic knowledge - should be the writer's focal concern throughout the design and composition process. Achieving user satisfaction must be the principal motivation when designing any communication work. In Technical Communication terms, "satisfaction" typically denotes an acquired, specific, technical competence. Thus, helping the user do what s/he wants to do with the product s/he has bought is the technical communicator's primary objective.
  • Technical and business communicators must know and address their audiences’ differing requirements and expectations. Their communications should - as much as is possible - reflect this understanding.
  • Empathy is a valuable asset in achieving audience-appropriate technical material. Writers who are able to put themselves in the position of the audience are more likely than aloof writers to create effective communications.
  • The usability of texts is determined by accessibility, physicality, and the informational efficiency of all textual and any supporting visual content. To be effective, information needs to be retrievable, readable, and reliable.
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