It always comes back to your audience
For the most part, writing for a digital audience requires the same considerations as writing for traditional audiences. You must first look at the rhetorical situation. To do this, technical communicators must ask themselves a series of questions, including this question:
Who is the target of my message?
As you know, your audience can be broad and varied, or very specific. The problem with the digital world is that the audience tends to be the former, which can make it very challenging to decide how to create your message. How do you write a universal message for a non-universal group of people?
Well, I hate to say it, but you have to generalize the audience members. You can’t feasibly create a message that will work for each and every individual out there, so you just have to try to identify the most common features so you can address MOST of them.
How do you identify these common attributes? One of the best ways is learning directly from the user. Blakeslee (2010) talked about interacting with readers in this week’s readings – what you might call a “collaborative” audience or user-centered design. Of course, this hinges on having the audience provide feedback in order to help improve technical communications. However, like in the case study from TaxSoft, what if you don’t have direct contact with the customers? Or, in my own personal experience, what if it’s like pulling teeth to get user feedback?
Audience Challenge #1 – No Contact
In the TaxSoft example, one of the employees interviewed said she had to get secondhand feedback from other departments or review call logs to see what customers were saying during conversations with their call center (p. 208). They did this because she (and her fellow technical writers) didn’t have a direct relationship with the customer. She commented that “writers are not subject-matter experts in our company, and, as such, it would not be appropriate to step into that relationship with our users” (Blakeslee, 2010, p. 209). I think this is very unfortunate. Perhaps this company needs their technical writers to start getting more involved with the customer?
The SecureNet case study, on the other hand, showcased employees who DID have relationships with their customers, going so far as to interview some of these audience members before starting a new project (p. 210).
Audience Challenge #2 – The Unengaged Audience
This is the audience that doesn’t provide feedback, or is very difficult to get feedback from. I have had this experience quite a bit in my place of work. A specific example is the online customer portal we launched earlier this year (that I’ve mentioned in previous blogs). We rolled it out in four groups. After each group was introduced to the site, I sought feedback from group members on the features of the site, if they were using it, what areas they liked best, etc. I probably sent out over 100 surveys and only had three or four returned to me. Those that were returned had little to no helpful feedback. What did I do wrong?
Well, it comes full circle because it has everything to do with the audience. My audience is not terribly tech savvy so many of them just weren’t using the site. Filling out a survey for a service they weren’t using didn’t make sense. For those that WERE using the site, they didn’t send us a survey back because they preferred to tell us in a more personal way. The most useful feedback we received was gathered during a phone conversation. Seems a bit old school, but, again, going back to the type of audience I have (not tech savvy), doing a telephone survey makes more sense.
Fortunately for me, my audience is typically quite specific. This can make it easier for us to create our message, although it’s not foolproof. But, this is actually one of the greatest things about digital technology! If we don’t get the message right the first time, we can change it anytime we want for little to no cost and for a modest amount of labor. With traditional communications (print), it can be time-consuming and costly to make changes. I just think about all those companies out there that still put together catalogs and how much time and resources that must cost them.
U-Line is a perfect example. They mail us a catalog once a month. Then, they send us a catalog with each order we place from them. Sometimes, we will get up to six or seven catalogs in a month! We think it’s a waste of paper and also prefer looking up products online anyway. Maybe this company needs to evaluate their audience a little better!