A STRATEGIC GUIDE TO TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION

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What makes instructional documents good? There are a number of ways to make instructions, procedures, and manuals easier to use: • Know your audience or user group • Include an overview of the procedures • Write usable steps • Subdivide processes • Illustrate procedures • Design an effective page layout • Do usability testing
KNOW YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE OR USER GROUP Although many of the instructional manuals for software that you can buy at the bookstore are produced for the broadest possible audience, the most effective technical communication is targeted towards a particular group: basic beginners or advanced beginners or expert users. Think about two activities, one that you know vir-tually nothing about and another about which you are an expert. Now consider the type of instructional documents you would want in each case. For example, if you decide to change the oil in your car for the first time, how detailed would you need the information to be to ensure that you service your car properly? Would you need a photograph of your car’s engine with the relevant parts labelled? Would you need the instructions to tell you what kind of engine oil to buy and how much? On the other hand, if you have spent the.last three summers in your cousin’s auto shop helping out with various clients,’ cars, would you need a labelled visual? Even if you had never actually changed the oil in a car by yourself, you would likely havt assisted enough times to be quite familiar with the procedure. In this cane, you would n ed some refresher-type instruc6°”s’ reminding ,ywistone or two key points—for example, don’t over tighten the
would skip impatiently r you wou .1 jilter’bu find the plug in the oil pan. ons that told 0 %There to ,00 % ing how much. your target et user knows about), the e ) pa:critical to writing good instructions. How do , marizes find what 1, of information you need about your target user die kin Coe, of experience with the subject matter of yougtnitt otter 15 r target user group knows? The list that follows sui nd out Ric-• Ettaal tToantaerliablackground, both generally and specifically, in subjects related to your subject matter • • o Experience with and attitude toward learning new thingsgenerally Experience with and attitude toward technology rally and toward technology related to your topic specifically • Relevant demographic characteristics such as age, sex, race, socio-economic background or class, culture, and first language
As noted in earlier discussions, you may already have this informa-don if you are familiar with your target user group; if you are not familiar with that group, then you will need to do some research to find out general answers. Interviewing members of your target audi-ence is a good way to start. Review the proposal by Jason Nguyen in Chapter 8: in it, he plans to interview first-year engineering students from his programme, as well as undergraduates from other majors who are assigned oral presentations as part of their discipline-specific training. Nguyen is, in effect, gathering insight from his target user group to decide the best way to organize and present his informa-tion. Even if you can’t mount a full-scale study of the group, informal conversations with three or four people who would fall into your target user group can give you invaluable feedback in understanding the needs of your audience. A second way to collect information is to observe your target users as they work with other similar types of documents. You would do this to determine the level of background knowledge they brie to the subject matter as well as their attitudes and habits of use with this is to draw type of educational material. If you have limited ability to con-tact or work with your user group, then another strategyk ‘fy your asstunp.- on the expertise of your co-workers who do have some knowledge test and ven of the target user group so that you can tion • misunderstanding . s about their needs and preferences. Usability testing est stage can also help you head bout the Prefer-more a testi • and learn at. the earl-of prefer-testing gives You the chance to meet asennous udience. ekes of actual members of your primary a
INCLUDE AN OVERVIEW OF THE PROCEDURE Another feature of good instructions is that they include, at th beginning, some type of introduction to or overview of the content covered. The introductory material should accomplish four goats, • Allow users to gauge whether this document is the right one to help them answer their questions • ate, too elementary, Help users decide whether tandevainosctruedttfoior level ry • Provide a list of requirements or equipment needed to con. plete the procedure • Provide a conceptual overview of the content of the docu. ment to assist users in processing the new information Introductory material can help users to gauge quickly whether the – document covers the topics they need. This information makes their i search for help more efficient by revealing, up front, whether this know more. manual covers the function about which they need to Instead of paging through the volume, they can tell from skimming through your introduction whether to look further inside. Users also appreciate being able to find a clear statement early on as to the level of background knowledge assumed in the instruction. They can assess whether it matches their own level closely enough and decide whether they want to try to accommodate the level to their actual skills. For example, if the manual is more basic than they need, they may choose to overlook the statements that don’t apply to their level of knowledge. If the manual is geared to a more expert audience, they may choose to use it while seeking additional help, from a reference book or more knowledgeable friend, for instance. Knowing the anticipated skill level of the audience up front can reduce the frustration users experience with the instructions because they go into the volume knowing what to expect. The overview should also include a list of equipment or require-ments that are needed to complete the procedure. Users can scan the list and identify any items or conditions that they don’t have or may be unable to fulfil. For example, to create electronic instructional design materials using Dreamweavers’s e-learning toolkit, users must have a copy of Dreamweaver® and an up-to-date operating system-When these versions first came out, individuals had to buy both the learning sites. Some people got a rude shock after they pun. -rs if they upgrade new operating system and the new version of Dreamweass . wanted to create lessons that incorporated the quiz function and the purchasing the toolkit, they would have understood the extent the e-learning toolkit when they learned that they would need to .. investment they were making. int ot their whole operating system. Had they known this at the pen t of the
TEN • WRITING HOW-TO DOCUMENTS
it the overview helps to orient the reader thou: ii1thenviu”:1’11,1,chriich to work as they process the content. Al k WC he material of direct and immediate reley • from which or manual. They can begin to • Al tesoto“”the build a rcgoannci:pa tt iii71 ilv find t :mean eas – ,re writing a set of instructions, then, jr you – Your ov .. . . sink-. no more than three or four sentences. en Inv will brick” ‘ es- In a longer It I document, you may need a Paragraph o Joe context context for the content discussed in the r nv° to set uP eg larger f your overview is that it should e manual. But the . ‘orient o , ou s ould be accessible .5e., clement esst e and help • readers to understand and make decisions about h our rea t sv ether this is • • ht set of instructions for them. the rig
0113rE USABLE The actual d :3,61E. SHowever,TES there are several conventions that you Should use as -nal instructions or procedures themselves often First-timeto ensure il surethearitteyrsourofdiocosturzniotantisoonhiens as format their seem straight-eeeumenting procedures is an entirely different genre from writing an id know anpodssapihplel): their work as a series of paragraphs, as if they were unaware that fling rs,is or a report. For example, many cookbooks provide the direc-tions for making a dish in one long paragraph under the list of ingre-dots. While experienced cooks will have little difficulty figuring out how to work through the steps, newcomers may find it difficult to hitp track of where they are in the process or discover that too much ofomiation has been left out for them to prepare the dish successfully. Examine Figure 10.1 in which Daniel Brisebois has written a first draft of the procedures for an experiment to measure amino acid 6tration. As you read the draft, think about what—beyond the sci-entific subject matter—makes this procedure difficult to follow. Note that the various steps of the procedure are embedded in paragraphs, nth -then” used as a transition between the steps; there is no way to Leep track of which step is next except the chronological order of the sentences. It would be easy for someone trying to use this procedure 😮 miss one of the steps and make an error. A second characteris-e that makes this procedure hard to read is the use of the imper-sonal ‘sone” as an indirect means of instructing the user. This form of ‘ddress is very formal (in everyday conversation, most people don’t 2u-one” in speaking to each other), and this formality distances QMStent: mostly the ”’liter from the reader. Many people are offended by some ‘Ctiks to them in the third person. The form of address is also not is • the occa • be to – . ‘ mote informal, changing the tone. A more effective strategy maintain sionally uses “you” or imperative verbs. ostly Briscbois uses “one- to instruct the reader, someone who the distance consistent tone throughout—likely one chat This use of “you” but he would e between the technical communicator and the user. hit reduces

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