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Planning a User Guide - Part 1/5 - Audience Analysis

Creating a User Guide is in many ways similar to building software. Just like software, creating a successful manual also needs prior planning. 

Planning a User Guide is a large topic so I’ll write it as a series of eight posts - one for each planning task.

Here’s the first post on audience analysis.

Audience Analysis

A User Guide explains how to install and use the product. An effective User Guide does it in a way that is easy and clear for its readers. It considers the goals and requirements of the users. Therefore, the first planning task is to understand the target audience.

The best way to understand your users is to interview them. The interview is done to identify usage patterns and a set of attributes that will help you communicate more effectively with your target audience.

You can begin by identifying a few (let’s say five) users and interview them to understand their requirements. If you already have a few pilot or actual customers then it's best to begin with them. However, if you don’t have customers as yet, then the interviews can be done with people you already know and who might fit the profile of a typical user. Old colleagues, family, and friends are usually happy to help. You can also tap into your LinkedIn network. It might reveal interesting people who may not have crossed your mind. 

The outcome of user interviews is a set of models that will help you understand your customers. User Personas are a great way to model your target audience. Aurora Harley gives a nice definition in this article:

A persona is a fictional, yet realistic description of a typical or target user of the product. A persona is an archetype instead of an actual living human, but personas should be described as if they were real people.

In software terminology, a persona can be thought of as an abstraction of a group of people who belong to the same user type. It contains those characteristics, of the group, that are important for building a better product - in this case, the user guide. However, a persona is more than just an abstraction. It is an attempt to make the abstraction personal and realistic. A typical abstraction might describe a user in dry, statistical terms. But a persona makes the description more human, helping us to not only understand but also empathize with the user and their requirements.

Unless your software is for a very niche audience, you will most likely need multiple personas - one for each type of user. Realistically, I suggest creating about 3 - 5 personas. If you are building an enterprise software then you also need to create personas for the system admins who will install and manage the system. My suggestion is to create 2 - 3 system administrator personas in addition to user personas. Usually interviewing 2 - 3 people for each persona should be sufficient. 

From the perspective of a user guide, a typical persona would have the following details:
  • Personal details such as age, gender, and educational background.
  • Professional details such as occupation and experience.
  • Knowledge of the business domain and terminology. 
  • Needs
    • Does the user have any special needs?
    • On what device do they typically access the User Guide and the product? 
    • Does the user use this software for work or is it for personal use?
    • Any other needs the user has.
  • Goals when working with the product: speed, accuracy, thoroughness, etc.
  • A photograph of a typical user: You can photograph an actual user or pull out a stock photo that most closely resembles the details you've gathered. Having a photo may seem insignificant but it’s not. A photograph will make it easier for your team to empathize with the user.
Once ready, the user personas can be used as a reference point for making decisions related to the manual’s design and content. For example, personal details of the user will help in determining the choice of words and the tone of the manual. A User Guide written for an audience in their 60s and 70s will use a different set of words than a User Guide written for an audience primarily in their 30s. You might also want to use a larger font for the former. 

If most of the users read the manual on their mobile device then you would avoid a multi-column design. You would also avoid margin notes. 

It’s important to know how familiar users are with the business domain and terminology. This point is really important because a typical manual contains a lot of terminologies. We often assume familiarity but it’s often not the case. It’s good to know which words and concepts the users might have to struggle with so they can be included in the glossary.  

A product made for hobbyists might have a manual that explains a lot of background concepts and provides useful tips, while a manual centered around business users will be more to the point and formal. 

These are just some ways to use the information from user personas - you’ll create your own rules as you go along. The key is to ask yourself questions like:

  • Will this cover design appeal to Emily and John?
  • Will Mr. Watkins be able to read this font style? Are the margins and spacing comfortable for him?
  • Ms. Shaw does not have much time on her hands. Is the information I am writing concise enough for her?
It’s really about making it a barrier-free experience for the users.  

Finally, user personas serve as a terminology for discussions, much like design patterns do in software architecture related discussions. In software architecture discussions, using a pattern name such as ‘The Singleton Pattern’ or ‘MVC Pattern’ allows the speaker to use a name that expands into concepts that would have otherwise taken a lot of explaining. Similarly, in User Guide related discussions, a writer might say - “I think this decision will be perfect for Emily’s needs.” The user persona referenced to by “Emily” expands to all the needs described in that persona without having to mention each of them individually.

In conclusion, begin your User Guide with a planning phase to ensure that it's easy for your users to use and understand. Getting to know your target audience is the first planning step. We use User Personas to model types of users and then subsequently these personas in discussions and while writing the User Guide.

Here are three articles that you can read for more information on User Personas:

  1. How to create personas (HubSpot Academy)
  2. How to create a user persona (99 Designs)
  3. How To Create Customer Personas With Actual, Real. Life Data
In the next blog post, I will explain how to define the overall scope of the User Guide.


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