Who are those guys?
The first question a writer-director should ask is not “What do we want to say?” but “Who will be using the documentation?” More than almost any other type of writing, technical documentation requires a complete and precise definition of audience. Products and processes are no good unless people know how to employ or deploy them. This always-first question is considered both in concept (Communicate) and practice (Communicating Your Technology) elsewhere. But there are specific issues about defining the user of a technology that are within the purview user documentation:
- Can your define a typical user by occupation, location, level of education, and other attributes?
- What does the typical user already know about navigating tools like mine and what new things will the user need to learn about my technology?
- How is my technology bringing a solution to my audience and what alternatives or substitutes exist for them already?
- What does the typical user need to know my technology that he or she doesn’t know?
- Where (online, in print, at work, at home, at school) and how (this is tricky) will the user be looking for information?
First, let’s admit that by “typical” we are really talking about a range of people. No documentation or marketing communication can speak to everybody, but it’s necessary to draw some boundaries. We’ll be doing an excellent job if we can define an area that contains, say, 80 percent of our possible audience. For some technologies—B2B, for instance—this is easier than for others, such as an app.
So what does my user do for a living? Is he or she involved in providing a service or a product? Will the user employ my technology to do a job or for personal use? Where our user lives is also a very important question these days. By defining the location of the user, we can start to set parameters for such things as language, culture and access to technologies. Location can also include whether the user is an internal (with relation to your company) or external audience.
Another important consideration is to provide information that addresses how people attack that job of learning about a new tool or toy. Some people want to know the whole story before they start out using your product or solution. Some want to dive in and learn more as they go along. Also, people differ in the way they assimilate information. Some of us are picture people; some are listeners; some are readers. Most use a combination of all three “styles” of learning.
Your starting point is to plan for presenting information, if feasible, through all these channels to the “nuts and bolts” people through to the “but I only need to know this bit now” people. It’s a tall order, because the time and resources are always in short supply. Even so, your whiz-bang technology may make the opportunities, but you should know that user rather than the solution is the real kingmaker. It’s the meaning your technology gains as a tool and in the marketplace that will define you and determine how successful you become.