From the outside, technical writing seems to only focus on the how – how to install an application on your computer, how to clean your new appliance and replace its components, how to use an API to let an app retrieve data – but, like journalists, technical writers also have to worry about the five Ws: who, what, where, when, and why. However, unlike reporters, the five Ws of technical writing are Who am I writing for?, What do they already know?, Where will they see this information?, When will this information be used?, and Why is this information important?
Answering these questions has become more difficult than ever. Audiences often include people from around the world with varying education levels, differing cultural values and sensitivities, and diverse usage environments. For these reasons, technical writers and UX designers must expand their research methods to include audiences from around the world. They must then use profiling techniques to approach their writing with these audiences in mind. This post introduces a holistic approach to research that combines top-down, bottom-up, and audience profiling to ensure that you and your writing team have all of the information required to reach your audience at your fingertips.
A good starting point for analyzing your audience is to use existing internal sources, such as your company’s marketing and sales teams, the analytics for your company site, and community forums for existing products. These resources help you identify the type of people that you’ll be writing for and the information that they’ll be interested in.
Your first stop should be the sales and marketing teams. These teams can provide a wide range of high-level information. Your sales team can provide ample information about existing clients and users, such as statistics on current users. In addition to this, the marketing team amasses large amounts of market research about the target demographic, that is, the users, of your product or service. These teams may even produce internal case studies detailing specific examples of customers using your product.
Your sales and marketing teams should be able to provide the following general information about your audience:
- Education level
- Monthly and annual income
- Marital status
- Social class
- Population size
This demographic information offers a tremendous amount of insight into your audience. However, it only addresses the first two Ws: Who am I writing for? and What do they already know? This information is invaluable, but addressing the other three Ws requires bottom-up analysis in the form of focus groups, surveys, and support system reviews.
Your top-down research provides you with a general idea of who will be using your documentation. However, a bottom-up analysis – that is, an analysis that includes information gathered directly from your audience – is necessary to establish where your audience will see the information, when they will seek out this information, and why they sought this information in the first place. In most cases, a bottom-up analysis takes the form of focus group interviews, user surveys, and reviews of support system information or a combination of these three tactics.
Focus group interviews can provide deep insight into how and why your audience uses your product or service. However, they are also the most expensive method of finding out about your audience. Often, a good idea is to piggyback on a focus group convened by the sales or marketing teams in your company, as your audience will also be their target demographic.
Your focus group should include people that fit the demographic profile identified in your top-level analysis. When you’re writing for a global audience, this means that you may need to conduct multiple focus group sessions in various countries. This can be a costly, but beneficial, exercise, especially when entering a new market abroad. However, if the cost is too great, then you should strive to assemble a multicultural focus group within your own country.
Focus groups can help you gain more insight into the following:
- Where users use documentation
- What motivates your users to use your documentation
- Why users use (or don’t use) your documentation
User surveys are another method of finding out about your audience. Although not as costly as focus group interviews, user surveys still require a certain amount of upfront investment in their creation and a lot of work to tease out relevant results from the mountain of data that you accumulate. Furthermore, user surveys tend to add a filter to your audience – that is, only a certain portion of your demographic is likely to fill out a survey.
The value of surveys, however, is that they are relatively inexpensive to administer compared to focus groups and allow you to compile answers to targeted questions comparatively quickly. The survey method you use largely depends on how established your company is in the target region. If you already have existing customers or clients in the target region, then they may be willing to fill out a short survey. If your products have generated some interest in the region, then adding a call to action that directs visitors to your website may be the way to go. Finally, if your brand is new to the region, then you may want to consider hiring a market research company to make sure that your survey reaches your target demographic.
Users surveys can help you answer the following:
- Where users use the product or documentation
- When users use the product or documentation
- Who do the users trust for information
Finally, support systems, such as Zendesk, or even sales sites that feature reviews, such as Amazon, allow you to gain some insight into how your audience uses your product and the aspects of your product that they find most troublesome. Like user surveys, support system research requires a substantial investment in labor and only the portion of your audience predisposed to making comments will do so. Nevertheless, a support system review offers the quickest way to receive direct input from users regarding the success or failure of your documentation.
Because the content focuses on the problems users encounter, support system reviews offer only a limited window through which to get to know your audience. But, as a technical writer, you strive to minimize these problems, so support systems provide excellent insight into when and where your audience requires information as well as the features that they need the most information about. Although valuable, this information is insufficient to create an audience profile, so a support system review should be supplemented by one of the other methods of bottom-up analysis.
The information gathered from your top-down and bottom-up analysis is invaluable, but you undoubtedly have mountains of it. Staring at spreadsheets full of demographic information, survey responses, and customer complaints quickly gets boring. To combat this, writers use audience profiles to put a real face on their audience.
Audience profiles, sometimes referred to as reader profiles, compile your top-down and bottom-up research into digestible descriptions of audience members. These profiles usually take the form of a narrative, but a CV-inspired style is also popular. Less popular, but still effective, is the collage-style audience profile.
Narrative profiles leverage what you already do well – write – to describe an audience members in a manner similar to that found in narrative prose. Many writers perform similar exercises when coming up for characters for fiction. Narrative profiles often contain greater detail and provide a more natural way to read than the CV or collage models. However, narrative profiles are also more difficult to scan, so you may find yourself rereading the same description over and over to confirm details as you write. For this reason, narrative profiles often include a photograph of the fictional audience members procured from a stock image site.
CV-style profiles allow you to easily locate important information at the expense of readability. These profiles consist of bullet points grouped under various headings, such as work experience, family life, and hobbies and interests. Like narrative profiles, CV-style profiles often include a picture so that the writer can identify with the face of the audience. The bullet points allow you to quickly scan the page for relevant information when writing. However, because the information is segmented in bullet points, it may be more difficult to paint a portrait of the audience member in your mind’s eye when reading the profile.
Collage-style profiles have fallen out of favor in professional writing, perhaps because they make your cubicle resemble a teenager’s bedroom, but they can still be as effective as the other profile methods. A collage profile usually consists of pictures of the fictional audience member and items related to their profession, interests, hobbies, and family. For example, a profile of an audience member may include pictures of schematic drawings, the Indiana Colts playing football, wakeboarding, and young children. These images may be supplemented by quotes from the audience member, such as “Why can’t they just print the instructions on the damned thing.” Collage profiles offer writers a refreshing break from reading and writing but require the writer to recall the motivation for including a picture or quote when writing it and require substantial explanation when handing off the project to another writer.
Whichever profile style you decide on, you’ll probably want to create at least one profile for each target country so that, as you write, you can ask yourself “Would Pornchai from Thailand find this easy to read?” or “Would Samadhi from Sri Lanka look for this information here?” In short, you can try to approach your writing through the eyes of your audience. Doing so will greatly increase the effectiveness of your writing and add a necessary direction to your voice. But remember, a good profile requires the right kind of research, so the top-down and bottom-up research steps are incredibly important. Performing all of the tasks described in this post with the end goal in mind will ensure that your text is accessible to your entire audience.