The Complexities of Audience in a Digital Age

It became apparent when I started my current job as a technical communicator that pinning down audience is no simple task. Working for a national student loan servicing company, the team of writers I work on creates deliverables for various audiences such as schools, lenders, borrowers, the U.S. Department of Education, and internal employees. Distinguishing between these audiences is relatively straightforward, but distinguishing sub-audiences within them—actually knowing whom I’m writing for and what they need to know—is something I have struggled with from day one.

Prior to taking this course, and even prior to this week’s readings, I hadn’t fully recognized that a great deal of the complexity I experience in my job today is because of society’s evolution into the digital age. Furthermore, the challenges I encounter at my company are not unique to my company or its industry at all; they are largely universal challenges that technical communicators are encountering throughout the world. Ann Blakeslee’s chapter (“Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age”) in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication illustrated many parallels to the challenges I encounter every day.

The Internet allows for the dissemination of information on a scale that has never been seen before. Our writing is often available to anyone who is online and looking for it. While this broad audience is an overwhelming thought, it doesn’t necessitate that we write for everyone at once. Blakeslee explains,

“While technical communicators may not know their exact audiences, the complexity of the product and typical environments in which the product is used provide them with guidance in understanding their prospective readers” (p. 204).

Basically, we can use information we know about the product and where/how it is used to make judgments about the audience. This is something many of do without even thinking about it. For example, I can assume that users of one of my company’s online applications are employees in a school’s financial aid office. Along with that, they are extremely likely to have a moderate level of knowledge about student loan disbursements. This makes it much easier than writing assuming a global audience with next to no knowledge about student loan disbursements—not to mention it makes for more useful documentation.

But learning about the audience beyond this, is where I think the biggest challenges lie. For me, this has largely been knowing precisely (or even generally!) what the audience needs to know and even better, a ranking of the tasks they must perform in the tool. The best way to get this information (obviously) is straight from the audience through interaction and/or feedback, which is not an easy (or even possible) task for many of us. Blakeslee’s case studies sounded so familiar I could have been one of them! Unfortunately, in my position I am not able to get direct feedback from the audience on the content my team writes. The main reasons for this are:

  • The privacy of the customer. Any time there is financial information involved, privacy becomes a concern.
  • My time and the customer’s time, or lack thereof. My company’s customers are widespread making travel not feasible. Also, many schools, for example, are under-staffed and under-funded; asking for their time would quickly become an inconvenience for them.
  • Existing roles and processes are hard to change. Moving beyond the customer service and sales staff having all outwardly facing contact with customers is difficult and requires the buy-in of management (which is not super likely given the first two bullet points).

Virtually all of these were mentioned by the participants in Blakeslee’s case studies. In my case, we have made efforts to obtain information about audiences from sales and customer service staff. Often, they are able to tell us what confuses users and when/how they use a tool. While it’s not as good as interacting one-on-one with members of the audience, it’s better than nothing!

With communication technologies evolving at incredibly fast pace, it is certain our interaction with the audiences we write for will continue to evolve and improve. I am incredibly interested to see how this aspect of technical communication changes in the coming years.

Posted on November 11, 2012, in Society, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Excellent post and I wonder if you can create a final paper that continues this point: “Prior to taking this course, and even prior to this week’s readings, I hadn’t fully recognized that a great deal of the complexity I experience in my job today is because of society’s evolution into the digital age.”

    • Yes, I was thinking about playing around with this idea for my final paper. There is certainly room to expand the scope of these ideas–and I’m sure plenty of material to draw from.

  2. I used to be responsible for gathering and analyzing customer feedback for our group and it was a tough job. I was able to get feedback directly from the customer but that was only because our documentation quality was raised as an issue by the customer. It isn’t easy getting customer access sometimes. I had to spend a lot of time convincing account team reps that I wasn’t going to screw up their relationship with the customer.

    These guys have been burned before by loose lips and overpromises from our own engineers. But, as the Internet removes the barriers between us and the customers, we won’t have anymore excuses. In fact, maybe customers will just seek us out.

  3. In most cases, I think writers consider their audiecne without ever thinking about it. This skill becomes second nature of any professional writer. I found your comments regarding the vast audeicne of the internet can be overwhelming, but, at the end of the day, we are still generally writing to a specific audiecne who uses the specific products we design. that is, just because everyone may have access to what we write, doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone needs to understand the writing–just those who will use the product.

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