Audience, audience, audience.
A simple mantra, and one which crops up in most technical writing discussions at some point. If you don’t know your audience then how do you know what to write, and why you are writing it?
Most technical writers will be aware of the particular audience for the document they are working on, but as part of understanding WHO the audience is, we must also have some knowledge of WHAT they do, or don’t, know. But how far can presumption take us? If we don’t have access to our users to perform a thorough user analysis then we are, at best, guessing. Even if it is in a very well-educated way.
Of course understanding WHY someone is using your documentation goes a fair way to providing a basic framework upon which you can base further “guesstimates” as to what information your readers require.
With this in mind, I have long since used the following general presumptions. I will stress that they are no replacement to actually talking to users, but they can help focus early discussions in a project.
My suggestion is that there are at least six key phases, or touching points, during which a customer will be interacting with your company and the information you provide. Touching points are not always direct, may not always be pushed out to the customer, and they may not always be followed in a linear fashion, as they are entirely dependant on the needs of the user.
Naturally the specific Touching Points within your interactions with customers will differ, but it’s a good exercise to step back and make sure you’ve captured them.
First Touching Point
The first time a customer hears about your company. This may be because:
- They have a pressing business need and their research brought them to your website.
- They attended a Trade Show, and received your marketing literature.
- You are following up on a potential sales lead from another project.
- They received a recommendation from a colleague.
- They have worked with you before.
The information requirement at this point is largely high level and business focussed. It’s more than likely that the information will be consumed by senior management, or perhaps used by middle-management as part of a briefing to senior management.
Second Touching Point
The customer is aware of your company and your products, and has a basic understanding of what is offered. They are looking for more information to allow them to make the necessary business decisions: Will this product meet our business need? Does this product offer a good ROI? Is our business ready to adopt this product? Does this product meet the regulatory requirements our company operates within?
The information requirement remains business rather than technically focussed, but has some aspect of product documentation available, an overview of the product capabilities and the underlying requirements and prerequisites.
Third Touching Point
By now the customer has decided that your product is viable for use within their business. You need to make sure they are fully aware of the implications of purchase, and of any additional requirements that their specific needs may drive.
They need to raise a business case and start the purchasing process.
Largely driven by Sales, the information here may be pulled from a common pool, with the prerequisites driving the information itself.
Fourth Touching Point
The customer has bought the product, and the deployment phase has begun.
For a custom solution, the bulk of the information needs to flow through a deployment or solutions team, as well as being usable by the customer throughout the lifespan of the product. This touching point is key during this stage as a lot of the information you will provide at source is likely to be edited to match customer needs. For an out of the box product, the information is centred around product functionality.
Fifth Touching Point
The product is deployed on the customer site. You are now in the support phase, and the need to be able to handle usage questions and more advanced requests for specific information.
Information requirement is largely customer driven but may still be pulled from various ad-hoc forums and FAQs.
Sixth Touching Point
The customer is transitioning from one version of your product to the next, or between products.
As a starting point, I think this approach is valid, and I’d be interested to hear if you have made similar assumptions. I wonder how often we document products without any insight into the audience whatsoever, and if you have done so, I’d love to hear how you tackled it.