Technical Writing and The Audience
In many ways, the audience or user of technical writing is the most important facet of everything we do (if the first chapter didn’t clue you into this fact already). Technical writing is all about conveying complex information to new environments and audiences, and being able to convey information to a new place involves knowing where it will be going and who will be using it there. It is fairly difficult to be an effective technical writer if you don’t know who is going to be using your work. The idea that there is some ideal technical writing level that we can all use and understand at the most ideal level is absolutely wrong, as we’ve discussed before and will discuss again. The audience matters!
Now, you may have noticed that while I’m mentioning audience a lot, the title of this chapter is devoted to users. That may seem like a simple swap, a set of synonyms, but in reality the term user has important implications that audience doesn’t always bring along for the ride. When we think about an audience, I would argue that our normal construction is a passive one. There is an audience for a play. There is an audience for a sporting event. There is an audience for a television show. In each of these cases, the audience primarily watches or reads (in the case of closet drama—a play meant to be read rather than acted) a text or event.
Users, however, are not passive. In comparison to an audience, a user is someone doing something. They are going to use whatever it is that they’ve been given. They’re not going to just leisurely stroll through a text—they have a purpose behind their engagement with it. Users use and depending on what they’re using, they may have an easy time or a not-so-easy time. For example, one of my best friends is color blind. He uses a lot of video game interfaces as he’s playing. Those interfaces are essential to him because he gets information from them to plan his playing. For many years, however, those interfaces have not catered to his ability to see color, and that has caused a great deal of grief for him. Thankfully, more and more modern games cater to users with color blindness and offer different interface color schemes to help users access information clearly using the colors they can see and distinguish between with ease.
As may already be clear, viewing the folks who will be accessing our technical writer as users puts us in a better position to cater to their needs. When we think about users and use, we push ourselves past simply having someone read our text and think about how they might actually use our text to carry out some task or goal. Once we make that leap, we’re suddenly asking a lot of really important questions we might not be asking otherwise if we just saw them as an audience. We’re asking questions about how our text is going to be used!
Having said all of this, I’m a hopeless waffler when I write about users and use and audience. You’ll likely see me using all of these terms and some more in the rest of this text. Unless I’m making a clear usage of a particular facet of one of the definitions, orient all discussions of audience and users around potential use. Hopefully in the future I’ll rewrite all of this and remove my waffling from the equation.