Today as I was driving past the firehouse in my neighborhood, I saw an electric billboard with the following message lit up on a bright red LCD screen and aimed at the motorists:
“NEVER PLAY WITH MATCHES!”
Who usually plays with matches? A child.
Who is driving past that billboard? Adults.
Would a child ever drive a car? Never.
Would a child who is riding in a car (usually in the back seat) would ever see and read the sign? Perhaps; if he or she knows how to read.
The way that sign was ill-suited for its audience reminded me the way some technical documents are equally ill-suited for their end-users.
If you have not considered the PERFORMANCE GOAL of your audience, that is, what your audience wants to ACCOMPLISH by reading your manual, then you cannot it in a way that will help them achieve that goal. It will be effort gone to waste.
An example. If you are writing a hardware “User Manual,” tell them how to turn on the system, operate it, and turn it off. But save the description and diagram of how Wire A connects to Terminal B to the “Installation Manual” because that’s the kind of information an installer, and not a user, would love to have.
As a technical writer you have to serve your audience well by asking these two important questions before writing anything:
1) WHY do my end users need this information? What are they hoping to achieve with it?
2) HOW can I write my technical document so that it will help my end users achieve the goal that THEY (and not me) have in mind?
Serve your users by finding out what they’re hoping to do with your information. That way you’ll always be on target and continue to be a technical communicator in high demand.
P.S. I’m still thinking about that firehouse billboard. How about “DON’T LET YOUR CHILD PLAY WITH MATCHES”? If you have a better one, let me know.