How to Understand Your Audience in Technical Writing
9 June, 2021
Understanding your audience is important in all types of writing. For example, if you were writing fiction for children, you’d use simpler words and shorter sentences than if you were writing for adults. If you were writing about healthcare, you’d use plain language when writing for patients, but precise medical terminology when writing for physicians.
Knowing your audience is also critical in technical writing. If your content isn’t catered to the right audience, your readers may be turned off by your copy. They may not understand the critical information you’re trying to convey. And if you have to rewrite your copy? That’s a waste of time, resources, and effort.
So how do you tailor content to specific audiences? Here’s a three-step process for learning about your audience and producing content specific to their needs.
Step 1: Define Your Audience Types
In technical writing, audiences usually fall under four main categories.
- Experts design, test, and understand exactly how a product works inside and out. People in this category are usually in research and development roles in companies. They are often well-educated and may have advanced degrees. They also may be researchers or professors in academic settings.
- Technicians build, operate, maintain, and fix products. These people are most interested in how the product works on a practical, day-to-day level rather than a theoretical level.
- Executives are decision makers. They make legal, administrative, political, business, and economic decisions on products. They may decide if a product is safe for the public, and whether it should be licensed and marketed—or not. Executives often have basic, non-technical knowledge about the product.
- Non-specialists are end-users who want to just want to use products for specific reasons—to complete a task, solve a problem, or for fun or personal use. They have the least technical knowledge about the product.
Before you begin any technical writing project, make sure you’re given clear guidance on which user group your audience falls in.
Step 2: Develop a “Persona” for Your Audience
Personas are fictional profiles used to represent members of specific audience types. They’re created based on market research and real data from your existing customers. They often include customer demographics (age, location and job title), behavior patterns (whether they buy quickly or need lots of information), motivations (efficiency, cost reduction or innovation), and how they’ll use the product you’re writing about.
In short, personas describe who you are writing for. By deeply understanding your target users, it’s possible to create something that best meets their needs.
To illustrate this, let’s say that we’re creating documentation for a content management system (CMS) for websites. Here are two sample personas we might develop for our two audience groups.
Persona #1: “Lucy”
Lucy represents a typical CMS user. She’s female, Pakistani, and 27 years old. She works as a freelance writer and editor in West Sheffield, in the UK.
Lucy uses the CMS for her freelancer website to highlight her skills, background, and professional portfolio. Her site is small and simple. It has about 40 pages, with most of the pages being her blog. She knows a few basic HTML commands, but relies primarily on the text editor built in the CMS to format content. She uses graphic software to crop images and format them for upload to the CMS. Lucy’s main needs for her website are to have the least amount of technical trouble in managing it, and for it to continue to be a source of inbound leads for clients and freelance opportunities.
Persona #2: “Matthew”
Matthew represents the user role of web manager. Matthew is male, African American, and 36 years old. He works for a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, in the US.
Matthew’s main job is to manage his organization’s multi-hundred-page website using the CMS. He is very familiar with the day-to-day usage of CMS systems and the administrator back-end portal. He knows how the CMS functions and how to make it work for his organization’s needs. He has some HTML and CSS coding skills, but he doesn’t consider himself a full-on developer. His primary work role is technical, but he is really more of a generalist who knows how to do, and plays many different roles, in his job.
Step 3: Tailor the Content to Your Persona
Now that we can visualize our two personas, it’s time to think about how that insight should affect our writing. Short answer: it should have a significant effect. What we know about our persona should dictate the language we use, how technical we need to be, what information we include or exclude, and how much detail we share with the audience to help them understand the material.
Here’s how we might cater our documentation differently for Lucy and Matthew.
Lucy: Typical CMS User
Matthew: Typical Web Manager
Include background information that could help a beginner understand the “big picture” of what a CMS is and how it works
Omit background information on what a CMS is and how it operates
Focus on the basics of site management, such as how to upload text, images, and attachments; how to add pages to the site; and how to make basic changes to page layout
Focus on in-depth details of how to manage and maintain the CMS, such as advanced features that will allow him to customize the CMS to meet his organization’s needs
Be written in layperson’s terms, using terms such as blog post, category, dashboard, and gallery
Be written using terminology that’s familiar to IT professionals, such as chmod, cPanel, DIV element, and .htaccess file
Clearly explain any technical terms that do need to be used
Provide short definitions of unfamiliar terms, if needed
Include lots of simple, easy-to-read graphics to illustrate complex topics or procedures
Include graphics as needed, including detailed, technical graphics that illustrate complex concepts or tasks
Be designed for maximum readability: margins should be wider, lines shorter, and type sizes bigger; color should be incorporated wherever possible
Have a more functional design; the design should not be unreadable, but need not focus as heavily on readability as does content intended for a layperson
How PerfectIt Can Help
This article outlines three steps to starting any technical writing project: define your audience, develop personas, and cater your writing to those personas.
To make your job even easier, you can use an automated tool like PerfectIt to help manage the details. PerfectIt acts like your own personal quality control specialist, helping you flag inconsistencies in capitalization, hyphenation, and spelling; make sure figures and tables are numbered sequentially; and automatically reconcile acronyms across the document.
You can customize PerfectIt to flag certain terms that aren’t right for your audience. For example, if you were writing for our “Lucy” persona, you could create a Perfect style sheet that would suggest replacing:
- “Absolute hyperlink” with “hyperlink containing a full URL”
- “Gated content” with “content behind a form”
- “Enterprise search” with “advanced search”
- “Admin home” with “home button”
PerfectIt could also help you maintain consistency in usage, an important tenet of technical writing. For example, you could set PerfectIt to suggest that you use the word “application” consistently, rather than switching between “application,” “program,” and “software.” It might suggest that you use “monitor” consistently, rather than using “monitor” and “display” interchangeably.
In sum, PerfectIt can help take care of the details, so you can focus on creating technical content that’s clear—and clearly focused on your reader.