Generational Help

Identifying your intended "audience" is pivotal in any documentation effort. The better you can identify who it is you're writing documentation for, the more likely that you'll meet their needs. However, when it comes to software, the answer isn't always clear. Some applications have a very specific audience, such as a real estate valuation tool, but many products cross over freely between consumer-professional and novice-intermediate. As companies expand a product's capabilities, and seek a larger market, the intended audience gets more and more inclusive.

This provides a challenge for Help authors. Speak to the novices, and no self-respecting advanced user will ever consult the documentation. But if you write for intermediate or advanced users, then newbies will be so confused that they'll give up in frustration.

A recent article by Steven Frank leads me to think about a twist on this conundrum -- generational knowledge. That is, we learn the basics of everyday life from our parents and siblings. How to make toast, mow the lawn, and drive a car. When "using a computer" joins this group, when it becomes just another tool of daily life, how will this impact Help and documentation? Or, as Steven wonders, will the pace of change in the industry mean that all generations must learn the basics first-hand? He writes:

"My dad taught me how to drive a car. A book taught me how to use a computer. Does this struggle with technology only exist because we're one of the first few generations to have personal computers? Will their apparent complexity diminish over time as the home computer becomes as commonplace as the TV and radio that pre-date it? Is "how to use a computer" something that will be passed down through family lines, like driving? Or does the pace of the industry mean that computers will forever be two steps ahead of consumer's understanding?"

Posted: May 1, 2003 link to this item, Tweet this item, respond to this item