Elements of Audience Analysis

Analyzing the Audience  Creating an Audience Profile 
Selecting Appropriate Media  Planning Document Content 

The material on this page is copyrighted. It is excerpted from Science and Technical Writing: A Manual of Style. Routledge, 2000.

 Analyzing the Audience

Before writing anything, describe an audience by:

Conducting the Audience Analysis

Conduct either a formal -- based on surveys and questionnaires -- or an informal -- based on discussions -- analysis to create an audience profile.

Formal Audience Analysis

During formal analysis:

Some organizations often do formal analyses as part of marketing planning.

Informal Audience Analysis

Gather information about the audience by talking with people who will read the final document. For example, when writing

Interview marketing, development, and other staff. These specialists have market research results, as well as access to customers.

When interviewing marketing and development staff,

Find out about the audience by reading

Identifying Audience Characteristics

Identify the audience characteristics and remember them while writing. Before you begin writing consider such important audience characteristics as

Educational Background

Ask for information about educational background to assess the audience's reading ability and its willingness to read. A college-educated audience should be able to read more difficult texts than a high school- or grade school-educated audience.

In most cases, simple language - common words or technical terms appropriate to a particular readership - and a direct style - typical sentences without unusual structures - offer the best approach for all audiences.

Professional Background

Know the basic requirements of the jobs the readers perform. Do not confuse a job title with professional functions. For example, readers of technical and science writing could perform many professional roles at the same time:

Job functions can imply different levels of knowledge. Compare, for instance, the difference between a design engineer's and a technician's knowledge of engineering theory.

Consider how a document will help readers do their jobs. Maintenance documents, for instance, must have less text and, perhaps, more illustrations to help these readers complete their work quickly.

Knowledge and Experience Levels

Use professional and educational background to determine the audience's knowledge and experience on a subject. Use this information to evaluate what readers know and what information they need.

Categorize readers as a multiple-level audience if they include technical experts (programmers, engineers, scientists) who are unfamiliar with certain tools or techniques. For example, the reader may have general knowledge and experience with mathematics, physics, electronics, and spectrometry. However, she may be an inexperienced computer user and may lack specific knowledge about emission spectroscopy. A document that describes how to use a software package to obtain emission data, and how to interpret that data using specialized mathematics, must address various levels of audience knowledge and experience.

Consider a document's implied as well as explicit audiences. For example, a technical manual prepared for novices may also be read by financial managers. This same manual may also have to support product maintenance. Hidden audiences affect a document's organization and style. In the above example, for instance, the document may have a benefits summary for sales purposes or provide a reference table for expert readers.

English-Language Ability

Consider the audience's English-language ability. Many people employed in technical disciplines have graduated from U.S. universities but come from other countries; English may be their second or even third language.

Consider, too, that a second technical language may be quite different from a second conversational language. The technical author has advantages over other writers, because technical English uses a small subset of the English language.

Reading Context

Consider the physical and psychological conditions under which the audience reads the document:

Identifying Audience Objectives and Needs

Use audience objectives and needs to shape how you approach the document:

Audience objectives may be long-term, short-term, personal, or job-related. They may or may not be directly related to the document.

Note that most technical documentation is written for readers with job-related objectives. Identify those objectives. Find out whether the audience will read the document to do a task, or to expand its knowledge.

Addressing Diverse Audiences

To satisfy a diverse audience's needs, address both different experience levels and different goals. Follow these general guidelines when writing for multiple audiences:

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 Creating an Audience Profile

Use the audience characteristics, objectives, and needs to develop an audience profile, or of each subgroup of a diverse audience. To create the profile:

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 Selecting Appropriate Media

Technical and scientific communication employs a variety of media forms--brochures, booklets, newsletters, articles, and technical manuals--each with specific characteristics and goals.

Communication Media Characteristics
Booklets Ask for Action


Catchy, readable, graphic

Newsletters Periodic information

Journalistic style

Technical Article In-depth focus on a single topic

Style- journalistic to formal

Technical Manual Details a product or process

Style depends on audience

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 Planning Document Content

After analyzing the audience and choosing the appropriate medium for the document, plan its content. The document's structure, the information order and its level of detail is important when describing a complicated concept or a technical task.

Document planning involves at least three activities:

Collecting the Information

Base information collection procedures on the document type being prepared and the source material available. For example, product specifications may be a good information source when writing a technical manual, but less useful when writing a brochure. Laboratory notes may supply important source information for a technical journal article, but not for a newsletter article about the same research.

When written source material does not exist, rely on experience, interviews, and product access to collect information:

Be aware that someone can know too much about a topic to write about it effectively. If a researcher writes her own material, for instance, she may easily make inappropriate assumptions about audience knowledge, unless she remembers the audience characteristics.

Analyzing Written Source Material

Find extensive written source material, including marketing materials, earlier versions of documentation, data sheets and specifications, and notes. By analyzing this material, the author can:

To prepare for the analysis, inventory the source materials and arrange them in an order that supports the analysis (for example, order of presentation).

When assessing source materials, consider these questions:

During this assessment, keep in mind the audience needs and the document's goals. This focus reduces the risk of missing important information or of spending too much time on unimportant information.

Interviewing Sources

If a document's author is not the primary researcher or product developer, obtain information from other people.

To prepare for an interview:

Keep in mind that some interviewees will be comfortable and speak easily, while others will have trouble communicating. Participate in and control the interview according to the personality of the interviewee.

If the interviewee seems uncomfortable, start the interview with a question based on his or her expertise. Ask for additional explanation as needed, or pose open-ended questions.

Conducting a Hands-On Evaluation

When evaluating a product before writing about it, pretend to be a target user. Think of tasks the user must perform and then try to do them. Try to use all the basic product functions. Observe whether they operate consistently; note any inconsistencies.

Organizing the Document

Whatever the medium, make the organization consistent and rational, so readers can follow it easily and understand the information it presents. The type of medium--brochure or article, newsletter or technical manual--plays a major role in document organization. A brochure, for instance, might include specifications at the end; a technical reference manual is more likely to begin with those specifications.

Understanding the Challenge

Document organization requires thinking about the readers' expected usage patterns and needs. By thinking through the document, the author can begin to focus the information and identify missing information. The author can also decide whether any information is unnecessary, or whether there is too much information for one document.

Two factors make organizing a document a challenge. First, the organization must be intuitive. A reader must be able to understand this plan by simply reading the document without further explanation.

Second, to be sure that readers understand the organization the author must decide how to guide readers through the document. Guideposts can be as simple as headings and cross-references, or as elaborate as graphic icons and color-coding incorporated in the page design.

Understanding Typical Organizational Approaches

Be sure that a document's organization explains and logically arranges all necessary ideas. Although there is no perfect organization for any technical or scientific document, some organizational methods will be more appropriate than others, depending on the document's audience and purpose.

Typical organizational approaches include chronological, spatial, climactic, and task-oriented. Some documents may need an organization that combines more than one of these approaches.

Outlining the Document

Outline a document to organize it and define its content before writing. The outline provides a baseline for the document; parts of the outline may change during writing. Along with this flexibility, an outline offers some useful advantages; it:

Use a formal, detailed outline for reviewers who must approve a document.

Use an informal outline when the outline will only be a tool for the writer's use.

Preparing a Formal Outline

Prepare a formal outline to show a document's hierarchical structure. Depending on the level of detail, the outline may present chapter titles, section headings, one or two levels of subheadings, and even groups under subheadings. The formal outline's logical structure makes clear the relationships among topics.

Most formal outlines:

A formal outline should help reviewers judge a document's organization as well as the completeness and accuracy of the information included. Because the outline should reveal the author's assumptions about the topic, reviewers may also be able to correct any underlying logical errors.

There are two types of formal outlines: topic and sentence. Although both outline types use the same parts and groupings of ideas, a topic outline uses phrases to express the ideas while a sentence outline uses complete sentences.

The following example shows the beginning of a topic outline:

1. Data network benefits

a. Shared software

b. Efficient data and file exchange

c. Shared equipment resources

2. Problems of evolving complex networks
a. Early networks
(1) Mainframe computers

(2) Terminals

(3) Single vendor

b. Today's networks
(1) Mainframe computers and terminals

(2) Microcomputers

(3) Minicomputers

(4) Local area networks (LANs)

(5) Multiple vendors

c. Compatibility issues
(1) Equipment/vendors

(2) Media

(3) Communication protocols

The following example shows how a sentence outline might present the same information:

1. Data networks provide modern computer environments with many benefits, including shared resources, efficient file transfers, and electronic mail.

a. Networks simplify support through shared software.

b. Exchanging data through networks provides accuracy and reduces costs, because all employees can access the same information.

c. Network users can also share equipment such as printers, plotters, and storage devices.

2. As complex networks grow, managers face problems.

a. Early networks consisted of mainframe computers and terminals from one manufacturer.

b. Now large organizations have also bought microcomputers, minicomputers, and local area networks (LANs), often from many different manufacturers.

c. But most network hardware and software works only with limited networks: one manufacturer's equipment, one or two programs, or one or two different media.

Use the sentence outline when reviewers will evaluate the final document's style and tone. Note how the sentence outline includes more detail and even implies a writing style and tone for the document.

Use a paragraph outline to list the controlling idea of each paragraph, but not to indicate the hierarchy of ideas.

1. Networks support modern computing facilities (include examples of network benefits).

2. Complex networks create problems for network managers (describe history and how it led to problems).

This sample paragraph outline uses complete sentences; it could have used phrases or simply key words.

Using the Nonlinear Outline

Some authors may feel uncomfortable with topic, sentence, and paragraph outlines, because they are linear approaches to document organization. The nonlinear outline approach, in contrast, is based on systems analysis, programming, and structured design/analysis.

Begin this outlining technique by writing the primary idea in the middle of a page. As related ideas occur, add them around the primary idea as relational nodes and draw connections among them. These connections extend to new ideas related to the secondary ideas, and so on. Work at random within this outline, to combine, add, and delete nodes in any order or direction.

Use the nonlinear outline to write the document by manually arranging index cards based on the nodes on a surface, some separate, some overlapping, and some piled on top of one another; then the document can be written by adding information to cards and adding cards to accommodate new relationships.

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Last Modified: 11/3/00

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