Analyze Audience

Lead Writer: Kieran Morgan | Peer Reviewer/s: Steve Moss | Managing Editor: Kieran Morgan

This chapter focuses on audience analysis in technical writing. We introduce the concept of audience categorization, grouping audiences into primary, secondary, and hidden groups, as we highlight their distinct needs. The Five Ws and One H method is introduced as a systematic approach for in-depth audience understanding. We also discuss the development of personas, drawing on techniques in customer experience design. The chapter guides readers through the practical steps of audience analysis, which sets the stage for developing user-centered technical documentation.

Audience Icon Who Should Read This
• Aspiring Technical Writers
• Beginner Technical Writers
• Career Advancers
• Cross-Domain Professionals
Table of Contents: Technical Writing Process
Previous: Chapter 10: Make a PlanNext: Chapter 12: Define Review Team
Table of Contents: Project Management for Technical Writers
Previous: Chapter 4: Make a PlanNext: Chapter 6: Define Review Team

1. Introduction

“Having a lot of empathy is the most important skill for a tech writer. If you don’t care about your users or the people you’re working with there’s going to be a disconnect eventually. Your writing will be ok—but it won’t be exceptional.” Dina, Head of Product Content and Knowledge

Imagine you’re crafting a message—not just any message, but one that could transform how someone interacts with technology. That’s the power of technical writing, which requires a fusion of empathy and expertise. In this chapter, we explore the heart of technical writing: understanding your audience. Remember the PADRE method we explored in Chapter 10: Make a Plan? In this chapter we bring that into play as we focus on your audiences’ unique needs and perspectives.

Often technical writers find themselves on the sidelines, constrained by time or detached from project planning. Don’t let this deter you from developing a thorough understanding of your audience. It’s vital for any well-crafted document.

In this chapter, we’re going to walk you through the process of categorizing audiences into three distinct types: primary, secondary, and hidden. We’ll then unpack a classic technique known as the Five Ws and One H, a staple among writers across various fields. This method involves asking a set of crucial questions that help ensure you’ve considered your audience from multiple perspectives. We’ll also explain persona development, drawing on techniques from the world of customer experience design. By doing so, you can create documentation that’s not only informative but also highly relevant to your target audiences.

Finally, we’ll lead you through the practical steps of audience analysis. You can put these concepts and steps into action in the audience profile in your Documentation Plan Template or take it a step further by using the Audience Persona Template to personify your audiences as archetypes.

With these tools, you’ll gain a comprehensive insight into your audiences by building a foundation for technical writing that both informs and connects with its users.

What Does That Mean Icon What Does That Mean?

Meaning 1: (“An audience”) A specific group or groups of people who will interact with or use a document. This can be categorized into primary, secondary, and hidden audiences, depending on their degree of interaction with the document.
Meaning 2: (“Audiences”) A general term for anyone who interacts with or uses a document, regardless of their categorization.

2. [Theory] Audience Types

Before diving into the nuances of audience profiling with the techniques detailed below, it’s best to categorize them into broad-brush categories. This helps you figure out which audience to prioritize in your documentation—and uncovers any audiences you might not have initially thought about.

Audiences can be categorized as primary, secondary, or hidden:

  • Primary audience: These are the direct recipients of your communication. For instance, “Our primary audience includes surgeons with varying levels of experience in using intra-operative devices.”
  • Secondary audience: These audiences aren’t the main focus but are still important. For example, “Our secondary audience includes nurses who assist in surgical procedures.”
  • Hidden audience: These are audiences outside of the primary and secondary categories, often with common interests or who are indirect recipients. For example, “Our hidden audience encompasses medical equipment technicians who maintain and troubleshoot the intra-operative devices.”
Note Icon Note
How Many Audiences Can There Be?
There may be multiples of any audience category, particularly secondary and hidden. So, how many should you define? There’s no hard-and-fast rule on this, but it’s helpful to remember the Pareto principle. This is the concept that roughly 80% of effects (or use cases for your documents) come from 20% of the causes (or audiences). So you don’t need to capture every audience—but you do need to define the ones that count.

3. [Theory] The Five Ws and One H

The Five Ws and One H technique is a time-honored method of rhetorical analysis. Its origins are so old-school that they trace back to Aristotle. This approach has guided analysis from antiquity right through to modern times. In fact, for many years, it was a fundamental part of journalism training to ensure that news articles captured all the critical elements of a story in an objective and unbiased manner.1

It’s an incredibly useful tool in audience analysis, and writing in general, which is why we’ve chosen it as our key theory for this chapter. While there are newer tools that we also explore in this chapter, such as personas, this one has stood the test of time, making it our first pick.

The Five Ws stand for Who, What, When, Where, and Why. The H is for How.

To use this technique for audience analysis, consider the following questions:

  • Who is the audience for the documentation?
  • Why does the audience need the documentation?
  • When will the audience use the documentation?
  • Where and how will the audience use the documentation?
  • What’s important to the audience?
  • What challenges can the documentation help the audience overcome?

We’ve included the Five Ws question-and-answer format in our Documentation Plan Template as an example of how to apply this method. This is shown in the extract in the table below. Remember, you can use this technique to examine almost any situation!

Who is the audience? Key Question: Who will be reading or using this documentation?Example Primary Audience: “Surgeons with varying levels of experience in using intra-operative devices.”

Example Secondary Audience: “Nurses who assist in surgical procedures.”

Example Hidden Audience: “Medical equipment technicians who maintain and troubleshoot the intra-operative devices.”
Why does the audience need the documentation? Key Question: What problem or need does the documentation solve for the audience?Example: “The audience needs the documentation to operate an intra-operative device effectively and safely because they are responsible for patient outcomes during surgical procedures.”
When will the audience use the documentation? Key Question: At what stage in the user journey will the documentation be most useful?Example: “The audience will use the documentation primarily during surgical procedures, and they aim to ensure both safety and efficacy.”
Where and how will the audience use the documentation? Key Question: In what setting and through what means will the audience access the documentation?Example: “The audience will use the documentation in the operating theatre while performing surgeries. They may also consult digital versions during pre-operative preparation.”
What’s important to the audience? Key Question: What are the top priorities or focus areas that the audience cares most about?Example: “Accurate, step-by-step operational instructions are a top priority for the audience because any error could have severe implications for patient safety.”
What challenges can the documentation help the audience with? Key Question: What are the specific challenges that the documentation aims to address for the audience?Example Challenges for Primary Audience (Surgeons):
• Ensuring surgical precision using new technology.
• Balancing speed and safety during operations.

Example Challenges for Secondary Audience (Nurses):
• Quickly preparing and setting up new equipment.
• Keeping pace with varied surgeon preferences and procedures.

Example Challenges for Hidden Audience (Medical Equipment Technicians):
• Understanding complex device operations for effective maintenance.
• Diagnosing and resolving technical issues swiftly to minimize operation room downtime.
Example Audience Analysis using the Five Ws Technique for a Fictional Surgical Device User Guide
Note Icon Note
The Ancient Roots of the Five Ws and One H
In Chapter 10: Make a Plan, we discussed the PADRE technique, an evolution of an ancient rhetorical method dating back to the era of the ancient Greek philosophers. The Five Ws technique also traces its origins to Aristotle, our philosopher friend who articulated the concept of rhetoric so eloquently.2
What Does That Mean Icon What Does That Mean?
Rhetoric is the art of effective communication and persuasion. It involves connecting with your audience in a way that encourages them to view things from the speaker’s or writer’s perspective.

4. [Theory] Personas

A persona is a method of characterizing audiences that makes them easy to relate to and memorable. It’s a commonly used tool in customer experience design. Personas, or archetypes, are fictional individuals representing the common characteristics of a group of customers.3 In the case of technical documentation, this means your primary, secondary, or hidden audiences.

A persona builds on the audience analysis you’ve already done. You can weave your Five Ws analysis into your persona. But here’s where it gets more interesting: a persona adds depth to this picture by getting a name, a visual avatar that represents them, and even a quotable quote they might say if they were a real person. This makes them both more memorable and more relatable. When folks start referring to your personas by their names, you’ll know you’ve really struck a chord.

Do you remember the technical writer types illustrated in the infographics in Chapter 2: Technical Writing Roles and Responsibilities? Those are examples of personas. We’ve used them to embody the different archetypes of technical writers. This was achieved by interviewing many technical writers, which allowed us to gain a comprehensive understanding of their professional lives, their thought processes, and the joys and challenges they experience.

To assist you in developing your own personas, we’ve put together an Audience Persona Template you can customize for your project.

Tip Icon Tip
Harnessing Personas for Consistent Writing
Developing personas is an optional yet powerful tool for guiding your writing team. It fosters consistency in how your documentation addresses and engages with its audience. This approach helps ensure that your technical content resonates more effectively with its intended readers.
What Does That Mean Icon What Does That Mean?
A fictional character that embodies the common traits of a specific group of customers or audiences for documentation. These are often referred to as archetypes.

5. [Practice] Analyze and Define Audience

Use the steps below to analyze and define the audience for your documentation. We’ve drawn inspiration from Kalbach’s five-step method, featured in his popular book on customer experience design, Mapping Experiences.4

5.1. Step 1: Collect Information

Begin by collecting available information as a resource. It’s likely that existing technical documentation already defines the audience. Additionally, your organization may have customer journey maps with established personas that will give you a starting point.

Tip Icon Tip
Aligning Personas with Customer Journey Maps
When integrating personas into your documentation strategy, it’s essential to align them with your organization’s existing customer journey maps, if available. This ensures that the personas accurately mirror real-world customer experiences and needs. It also helps to ensure that these personas are consistent with your organization’s existing research, further enhancing their relevance.

5.2. Step 2: Talk with Subject Matter Experts

Next you’ll consult with subject matter experts, such as product managers and engineering team members. They’re often well-versed in the audience’s profile and needs. It’s likely they have undertaken similar profiling activities, which will provide a valuable foundation for your own audience analysis. Keep your notepad ready—you’ll want to capture as much detail as you can.

5.3. Step 3: Create Draft Personas

Use the templates provided to create a draft of your audience analysis and personas if you find them helpful. The templates in Chapter 10: Make a Plan and the Audience Persona Template are a great place to start. Think of these as your “straw person” audience personas—they might be reasonably accurate, but you won’t know for sure until they’re validated.

5.4. Step 4: Conduct Audience Interviews

If it’s feasible (and if your organization’s policies permit), validate your audience profiling by interviewing someone from your target audience or someone with similar characteristics. Aim to really step into these people’s shoes as much as you can. This helps you understand the challenges they face when using the product, process, or technology.

If you can’t interview your audience directly, chat with close proxies—ideally frontline folks like customer support who interact directly with your audience. If that’s not possible, turn to people in your organization or your network who share similar characteristics, such as age, education levels, and abilities. Guide your questions with the Five Ws approach.

5.5. Step 5: Analyze Data

Now it’s time to dive into your findings and pick out the common themes. A convenient method is to pull out key themes from each interview. Start by sorting them under categories like the Five Ws and One H. Then, get them organized into common themes. You can use a virtual whiteboard, such as Miro, for this. Just drag and drop related themes close to each other, and you’ll soon see patterns emerging.

Use what you learn from this analysis to refine and confirm the initial straw person profiles you put together in the previous step.

5.6. Step 6: Consolidate Audience Insights

Now that you’ve gathered the information you need, it’s time to bring it all together. Consolidate the insights from your interviews, SME discussions, and any existing documentation or customer journey maps. This step is about creating a comprehensive understanding of your audience’s characteristics, needs, and preferences.

Begin by summarizing key findings and insights. Look for patterns and commonalities that help define the broader audience for your documentation. This might include technical expertise levels, common questions or concerns, preferred learning styles, and any other relevant factors. The goal here is not to create detailed personas but to form a clear, general profile of your audience.

5.7. Step 7: Finalize Audience Profile and Validate

With your consolidated insights, you can now finalize the audience profile. It should be a succinct, accurate representation of the people who will use your documentation. Include demographic information, common challenges, goals, and any other relevant details that emerged from your analysis.

Once the profile is drafted, it’s important to validate it. Share the profile with your team and other stakeholders for feedback. Ensure it aligns with their understanding and experiences with the audience. Adjust the profile as needed based on their input.

Finally, make sure this audience profile is readily available to everyone involved in the documentation process. Consider adding it to your internal documentation resources, like a wiki or shared drive. A well-understood audience profile is a key tool in creating effective, user-centered technical documentation.

6. [Template] Audience Persona Template

Audience Persona Template

  1. Barnhurst, K. G. (2016). Mister Pulitzer and the spider: Modern news from realism to the digital. University of Illinois Pres, location 4426. ↩︎
  2. Barnhurst, K. G. (2016). Mister Pulitzer and the spider: Modern news from realism to the digital. University of Illinois Pres, location 204. ↩︎
  3. Kalbach, J. (2020) Mapping experiences. O’Reilly Media, pp. 126-127. ↩︎
  4. Kalbach, J. (2020) Mapping experiences. O’Reilly Media, pp. 144. ↩︎
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