Sarah Leritz-Higgins, Mentor Graphics Corporation

One of the mantras that you often hear repeated in technical communication circles is “Know your audience! Conduct a thorough audience analysis! You’ve got to make sure that your content addresses the needs of novices as well as experts; and everyone in between.” This is one of those mantras espoused by industry experts that implants itself in our collective professional psyches and then haunts us individually at 3am, awakening us from a sound sleep. “How can I be sure that my content is adequate for all my customers? What if I’m only addressing the needs of a minor segment of my customer base? Can I really tune my content so that it actually helps a novice, while simultaneously does not alienate an expert?” The key question becomes, how can we provide content that serves a broad range of users who represent various and disparate backgrounds, skill sets, and levels of expertise?

While it is important to get to know your audience and research your customers’ needs, it is equally important to recognize that “expertise” is fluid, nuanced, and subject to interpretation. We should avoid using “expertise” as a static characterization of our users. Consider that

  • one person’s definition of “novice” is another person’s “intermediate.”
  • one person’s “intermediate” is another person’s “expert.”
  • a user may be a novice today, but may gradually build expertise with continuous use of a product (and may not necessarily have consulted the documentation as a novice).
  • a user may quickly build expertise during an intensive two-day training class and use the product steadily thereafter for a few weeks, only to experience gradually diminished expertise due to infrequent use of the product.
  • a user may have a great deal of experience with product A, but may not be familiar with the particular interface of product B in the same domain. For example, certified public accountants who are experts with Microsoft Excel will probably be able to come up to speed rather quickly with Quicken QuickBooks (even if they’ve never used it before).
  • a user may bring to the table a great deal of academic or non-profit experience, but may not have a lot of experience with the corporate world. For example, a project manager in the academic world may have different motivations and perspectives than a project manager in the corporate world.

So, how do we address the conundrum presented by these varying and fluid levels of expertise? Rather than trying to characterize expertise and tailor solutions that address each level of expertise, the key is to focus your task analysis with a nod to the 80/20 rule. In this day and age of doing more with less, it is critically important to focus your content development efforts on serving the most customers, most of the time. As you conduct a task analysis, be sure to identify the most important tasks that will affect the greatest percentage of the user base. Pay particular attention to those tasks that, if not done correctly, will negatively impact the entire user experience. This exercise fosters a prioritization of the tasks that your user base will perform. You, as the content developer, are better off focusing on the “Top 10” tasks and making them as effective as you can, instead of documenting every obscure feature of a tool. In other words, depth (of the highest priority tasks) trumps breadth (of obscure tasks).

After you have conducted your task analysis, your next focus is to craft a set of well-formed, easily digestible topics. Your set of topics should be task-based, with any necessary conceptual and reference topics to support the user tasks.

A well-formed topic is a self-contained “unit” of information that addresses one question. It has the following characteristics:

  • meaningful, intuitive title
  • exclusive focus on a certain type of information (procedural, conceptual, or reference material)
  • contextual awareness of a set of topics, fostered by the navigational interface
  • links to related topics

The beauty of a well-formed topic is that it inherently serves a diverse customer base with a wide range of expertise and skills. A well-formed topic allows the novice to learn enough to put his goals in context, while simultaneously enabling the expert to find precisely what she is seeking. Regardless of the users’ expertise, a well-formed topic enables the users to skim it and immediately discern whether it’s the topic they need. Ultimately, any effective topic enables the novice without alienating the expert. Often, a procedural or reference topic will suffice for an expert, whereas, a novice may also need a conceptual topic that puts the procedure into context. A well-formed topic, with links, enables the novice to access related conceptual topics, without deterring the success of the expert.

Those of you whose products serve a niche market (for example, rocket scientists developing control systems) actually have less of a challenge than those who support consumer products, because niche products typically represent a user base with a narrower range of experience and expertise, whereas, a typical consumer product serves a significantly broader demographic.

In no way am I suggesting that you ought to diminish the importance of conducting audience analysis. What I am suggesting is that you tame the audience analysis requirement and put it in its proper context—as a technique for identifying and prioritizing user tasks. By crafting well-researched, prioritized, and well-formed topics, you can address the needs of a broad range of users with disparate skill sets and various levels of expertise.