“How Can Technical Communicators Plan for Users?”
In chapter 10 of Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Antonio Ceraso introduces the concept of and provides strategies for how we might plan for users, both in the traditional sense of project management and audience analysis, but also through the process of user participation in the design and documentation process, what Ceraso calls responsiveness. Responsiveness, he notes, is usually achieved through the use of usability and beta testing and/or through collecting user data and feedback.
While the traditional forms of planning (project management and audience analysis) are no less important to the success as technical communicator, I want to stress this idea of responsiveness, of the need to involve users in the design and documentation process. The first thing to note here is the use of the word user rather than reader. The use of user here reflects not just the fact that your role as a technical communicator you might be involved in helping design website or software interfaces or developing a set of procedures, but that as a technical communicator much of what you produce is intended to be used by someone. While it’s unlikely that you’ll ever need to engage in beta testing of a memo written to update your supervisor on the status of your project, your supervisor isn’t reading your memo for information as one of your teachers might read one of your essays; instead, your supervisor is reading your memo to determine what courses of action your supervisor needs to take. Fortunately, as well-established genres, the progress report as memo has been through rigorous usability testing long ago (see both Bazerman’s “Knowing Where You Are” and Brent Henze’s “What Do Technical Communicators Need to Know about Genre?“).
The last issue I’d like to stress from this reading is the idea that while we often think of planning as something we do at the start of a project, Ceraso demonstrates that planning for users is most successful when it is approached as an active, ongoing process throughout the lifecycle of a project, including even after it has been released and put into use, and both of Ceraso’s heuristics, both the one for planning for audiences (Table 10.1) and the one for planning for responsiveness (Table 10.2), reflect this fact.