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Find your target audience – advice for technical writers

You are writing a manual for a new HR software application that is being deployed next week. So, you determine your target audience are the folks that work in the HR department. Done!

Seems really simple, right?  Well, maybe not. This question is a bit more complex than you may think. When you are working on a writing project, there are a few things you need to consider to find your target audience.

Finding your audience is the first and most important aspect of technical writing. Before you start planning, structuring your document, or writing anything, you must know who will read your documentation.

The first thing you want to do prior to embarking on a writing project such as the one described above is to create a questionnaire that will give you answers about your target audience.

The target audience analysis questionnaire

The questions below are the typical questions you would ask for a new or updated piece of technology, such as the new HR software in the example above.  Once you have answers to your questions, the following section explains how these answers will help you to construct your document for the widest possible audience.

  1. Who is using the technology? This answers who will be using the software (hint, it may not just be the HR department). Using the example above, HR software could include more than just information on current employees. It may include resumes of potential recruits, legal policies of the company with regards to employees, benefits, etc. So, you would have to expand the departments that will use the software to include recruiting and the legal department, not just HR.</p >
  2. What is your target audience’s profession(s)? This tells you specific professions (attorneys, human resources administrators, recruiters, managers, etc.) of those using the software.
  3. What procedures will each department use with the software? For example, if we are looking at HR software, are there procedures that will impact some of the data that is entered into the software? Data collected here should be used in your documentation.
  4. How familiar is the target audience with the technology? This answers whether or not your audience has used the software in the past, perhaps in another job, or if the system is brand new to them. Have they been trained on this software in the past? If so, to what level?
  5. What is your target audience’s technical background? This answers your audience’s level of proficiency and comfort with technology overall. Some people may be intimidated or anxious about a new software program, while some will be excited about new features coming their way.
  6. How will your target audience interact with the technology? This answers how your audience will use it. Maybe they use it once per week, a half hour a day. Maybe they will use it as their main software program and use it all day every day.
  7. What features of the technology are most important to your target audience? This question answers which features will be used the most. In most cases, you can usually follow the 80/20 rule (80% of the people will use 20% of the features).
  8. Does your audience have time to read? Do they like to read? This lets you know how big or small, how detailed the documentation should be, and if you should include additional documents, such as a quick reference guide.
  9. Who are the power users? Who are the key users? This lets you know who you can get more in-depth information from on the software and who is most experienced. This is helpful, especially if you are new to the technology. You can also find out if the key users have any additional requirements that need documenting, such as administrator functions.
  10. What does your target audience need to get out of the documentation? Your audience may want a document to train them on all features of the software, a user guide, or they may want a quick reference guide that focuses on just a few features.
  11. Does the documentation need to be translated into other languages? Perhaps you have an International presence and you are writing the documentation for target audiences in other countries.
  12. Are there any special accessibility considerations? This will let you know if you should do anything over and above Section 508 guidelines.
  13.  What is the preferred medium for your users to access documentation? Does your target audience prefer PDFs or perhaps an online manual? Will they be accessing the documentation from a tablet or a mobile phone? There are many choices to deliver documentation, so be sure to know what your audience prefers.


How to use all of this information to determine your target audience

So, what will you do with all of this information?

First, take the data and organize it in a manner so it can be analyzed, such as a spreadsheet or table.

With this data, you can make the following determinations about your documentation:

  • The features you need to include in the documentation
  • Whether you need a separate document for each user group or just one large document
  • The tool you need to use to write the documentation
  • Whether you’ll need a training manual, user guide, quick reference guide, or all three
  • The level to which you need to write
  • Whether or not you need to detail every feature or skip some feature that may not be used
  • Any special terminology or processes you need to include
  • The features that are most often used and may require more attention
  • Whether you need to make a special version of the documentation that focuses on accessibility

You will likely formulate additional questions while talking to those who will use the technology (be sure to add the questions to your questionnaire template for future reference). Also, this audience analysis focuses on software, however, there may be additional questions for other types of technology, such as a website.

I hope this was helpful to those of you who are new to writing or are just looking for more information. If you have other audience questions that you have found helpful, please share them here with us.


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