Knowing Your Audience: Which Document is the Right Document

First, let’s confront the most fundamental questions that must be considered before the process of technical-documentation creation can begin. Is this document effective? Does it communicate the information clearly and concisely? The goal is to provide enough information so that the reader’s questions can be answered before they have to make a call to technical support, engineering or product development for troubleshooting assistance.

In order to reach this exalted status of complete user understanding and comprehension, you must start by identifying the operational environment, application and customer’s knowledge base. Only when you know who you are writing for, what they are attempting to accomplish and how much of their own expertise they bring to the process will you be able to construct a technical document that is able to answer those critical questions listed above.

Every product is created with a goal – to have the user successfully utilize it for its intended purpose. The same is true for technical documents. But we need to ask, who will be reading the documentation? Will it be for reference, instruction or simply informational? Knowing the audience determines the type of document that needs to be created, how it will be published or distributed, and in what language(s) the content must be made available. Technical information can be communicated in multiple forms. Knowing which is the best forum to present the information depends on how the audience will be expected to access and reference that information.

  • User Manuals: These are comprehensive printed or electronically hosted documents that may include installation, operation, maintenance, troubleshooting tips and configuration instructions using text, illustrations, photos and 3D renderings.
  • Online Help: This consists of product information, helpful tips and hints and frequently asked questions that are hosted on a website support page, a Wiki entry or embedded within the software program as a way to aid the end user.
  • Quick Start Guide: Straight to the point 1-2 page printed or electronic document that is created for an existing user. This may be an electronic wiring diagram or initial product step-by-step configuration/setup primarily using graphical imagery.
  • Reference Guide: Created for a high-end user who may need to later review a setup function. For example, a reference guide may outline network/server requirements for an IT guru.
  • Technical/Service Bulletins: Informative documents used to communicate a product/document release or change, software firmware update or obsolescence of a part, product or document.
  • Data/Specification Sheet: A 1-2 page document that provides a quick glance at product technical details and may be hosted online, as an interactive PDF or as a printed document.
  • Standard Operating Procedures (SOP): Internal company step-by-step instructions using text and visual aids, such as photos or illustrations, that will clearly spell out how a specific task or function should be performed within a work cell. This could also include relevant company instructions for lockout-tagout procedures.
  • Compliance Documentation: This is typically an internal company manual/document that is required for product or equipment certification. For example, if you need to comply with equipment or product CE, FDA, UL or ATEX certifications.

By creating the right type of documentation for the right application and audience, the level of audience comprehension and utilization will be increased. This will also raise understanding of the company’s critical internal core competencies, including customer and technical support, while creating important protections for the user.


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