What Does Your Audience Really Want?

Posted on: January 20, 2010

Recently someone asked me what readers look for in a document. You know: are there any special “must-haves” or “sure-would-be-nice” features that make reading and using documents easier and more enjoyable? Over the years I’ve thought about this topic, researched it and have also discussed it with other writers. Here are some major themes, which apply especially to user, reference and training manuals, and other long documents:

Make information easy to find. Include all kinds of navigational aids: for starters, a table of contents, list of figures, list of tables, and an index. In some documents, you may want multiple versions of each kind. Take the index, for example. In some cases, it might make sense to have an index of features, an index of tasks, an index of commands, and so on. The upshot is this: do not bury important information. This takes some careful thought and planning.

Make information easy to understand. Know your audience. Do not make assumptions: do your homework. If there is more than one audience, make sure the document accommodates all of them, or split the document into two or more parts, and target each part to a particular set of readers. For example, you may need to account for both beginners and experienced users, and so you have to find a way to do that effectively.

Make information accurate. At the very least, your audience deserves this. Your information should also be complete and current.

Include artwork. An adequate number of screens, drawings, photos and tables will help people learn more easily and remember what they learned. Most people learn best when text and artwork complement each other.

Include tutorials and lots of examples. This is true especially if you are writing a training document. You must show your audience how to use your company’s product to perform certain tasks.

Define all terms in a glossary. Is there anything more irritating than not being able to find out the meaning of a term or its usage? Worse, that little gap in understanding can impede learning. Too many such little gaps typically give users a poor impression of a product and its manufacturer.

Balance task-oriented and reference material. Depending on the amount of material, both types might fit in one document. On the other hand, consider whether two separate documents would better serve your audience.

Streamline the document. In other words, don’t be wordy. Say something once, then cross-reference it as necessary. Organize the document tightly. To streamline, you must plan carefully and work from your outline.

So there you have it — the secret wish list of your readers. That’s what they say they want, but is that what they get when they read your documents?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  The Write Ideas


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