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Audience analysis: looking beyond the superficial

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2001. Audience analysis: looking beyond the superficial. p. 105–107 in: Proceedings, STC 48th Annual Conference, 13–16 May 2001, Chicago, IL. Soc. Tech. Comm., Arlington, VA. 608 p.

In performing an audience analysis, it’s easy to focus on simple, obvious issues such as the differences between men and women. In fact, men and women have more similarities than differences when it comes to most of the things that technical communicators document. A discussion of some seemingly obvious differences between men and women illustrates how to look beyond superficial issues to find the truly important differences.


To produce documentation that meets the unique needs of specific audiences, technical communicators perform an audience analysis. Such analyses generally attempt to identify features of an audience that will shape the nature and content of the information we produce. The problem with audience analysis is that it’s easy to mistakenly focus on obvious factors that actually have little relevance to what and how we write.

The two most common audiences that we face are neophytes and experts. Neophytes have little experience with the product we’re documenting, and require considerable additional support, including an overview of the product and basic instruction in its use. In contrast, experts already know the basics of using our software and require both reminders about less common features they may have forgotten how to use and explanations of more powerful features that neophytes might never attempt to use. Some of this information obviously overlaps, but the broader contextual information that neophytes require differs significantly from the detailed technical information the experts require.

Yet we often forget that neophytes may occasionally need to use some of the product’s more complicated features, whereas even experts need occasional refreshers on some of the basic concepts. This suggests that both basic and advanced information must meet the needs of these two audiences. Understanding how to identify and resolve the overlaps between their needs requires an understanding that goes deeper than the simple labels “neophyte” and “expert”. How much deeper? Let’s consider a different, less-familiar example to see what it reveals about the thought process that underlies an audience analysis.

Men and women: a sample audience analysis

Much has been written about the purported differences between men and women, ranging from pop psychology (Gray 1992) to more sophisticated work (Tannen 1990). In some contexts, men and women undoubtedly differ sufficiently to qualify as different audiences. For most products that we document (e.g., computer software), these differences are irrelevant to what and how we write, but under some circumstances, thinking about the supposed differences can reveal very meaningful information indeed.

Relevant differences and their significance

All else being equal (e.g., athlete vs. athlete rather than athlete vs. sedentary individual), men are stronger than women on average. This difference, though meaningless in the context of using a computer, can have significant implications for documenting the use of heavy equipment. For example, where unusual physical strength is required to perform a task, the documentation may need to provide a measure of the required strength: this might take the form of specifying the ability to lift a minimum number of pounds or supply a minimum amount of torque to a wrench. Where shortcuts or workarounds would compensate enough to let someone with lesser strength do the work, the writer must clearly identify which of these approaches are safe and which are risky or outright dangerous. But the important point is that it is strength, not the reader’s sex, that determines whether someone can do the job. Considering the strength differences between the sexes revealed an important factor that proved more important than the reader’s sex. [A look back from 2005: When I gave this presentation at the conference, I added the observation that though I'm a big man, reasonably fit, and work out regularly, I'd bet that there was at least one woman in the audience who was stronger. To my great amusement, a hand went up at the back of the room, followed by a timid "That would be me!" Janet, it turned out, was a champion powerlifter who holds several national records.—GH]

Similarly, men average several inches taller than women. This difference seems to have few consequences we should address through our writing, since this difference primarily influences workplace ergonomic needs that individuals can adjust individually. Yet that observation illuminates the more important point: that size can have important implications for the use of a product. Consider, for example, that the driver’s seat in a car or other vehicle serves as the full-time workplace for workers such as taxi drivers or couriers, and a part-time workplace (e.g., during commutes to and from the office) for many others. Some consumer advocates claim that the airbags in most vehicles are designed based on the dimensions of an average man, and that this poses safety problems for anyone who differs greatly from these dimensions. Manufacturers acknowledge this by warning of the dangers that airbags pose to young children via the owner’s manual and via text printed on the sun visor. Oddly enough, the warnings state that children younger than teenaged should sit in the back seat. These warnings neglect the fact that many mature women are shorter than some “immature” children. Though we probably can’t change the vehicle design process, we can certainly advocate changes in these warnings to emphasize the passenger’s size and weight, not their age or sex. Again, recognizing a superficial sex difference (men are taller) led to the recognition of a more important difference based on the parameter (height) we're using to distinguish between the two sexes.

Size differences have subtler implications in areas such as software design that are more familiar to most technical communicators. For example, men typically have longer fingers, and this means that keyboard shortcuts acceptable for a typical man may require an impossibly wide stretch for many women; conversely, closely spaced keys may provide feasible shortcuts for a typical woman, but require impossibly awkward finger positions for a typical long-fingered man. And what about the needs of younger computer users? Again, the sex difference is less important than recognizing that finger length affects the control interface on keypads, keyboards, and other control panels. For frequently used controls, the design must not interfere with safe use of the controls by all sizes of user, particularly in emergencies.

Lastly—and speaking as a bearded man—I think it’s safe to say that men are far hairier than women, on average. Though insignificant under most circumstances, this difference poses very real hazards for products such as self-contained breathing apparatus, which may be difficult for bearded men to use safely. For example, beards can prevent some models of face mask from forming a proper seal with the wearer’s face. Conversely, changes in hairstyles notwithstanding, women still tend to have longer hair, and that can pose a hazard around open flame or machinery with many moving parts. Yet many men grow beards that also pose hazards around flames or moving parts, and some (myself, for example) routinely wear their hair longer than many women.

Closer examination of the sex-based stereotype again reveals the truly important factors: that the presence of a beard or long hair, not maleness or femaleness per se, can have consequences we must address in our documentation.

Spurious or rarely significant differences

In contrast to the preceding examples, many stereotypical male–female differences have little effect on our documentation other than in very specific contexts. For example, women supposedly:

One might speculate that documentation whose comprehension depends on a keen understanding of dictatorial decisionmaking, exclusively linear logic, coldly logical thought processes, and a keen grasp of sports metaphor will work less well for women; similarly, one could speculate that documentation for women must emphasize that menu choices should be made by consensus, that the documentation should describe the least obvious approach to processes (lateral thinking!), and that decisions should be made based on gut feelings rather than careful analysis.

One might, but I certainly wouldn’t. None of these examples provides insight into real, broadly applicable differences among users that relate to the documentation of real products. Yet as is the case for the significant differences I presented in the previous section, each factor may still have important consequences for all users of a specific type of product, irrespective of their sex:

The documentation that accompanies educational software designed for use by childcare workers or teachers must either assume that the audience already understands how to work with children, or must contain enough information to provide the reader with these tools. Sports simulation games must necessarily assume that the reader possesses at least basic knowledge of the sport being simulated.

Although the sex differences I’ve mentioned in this section are not as broadly significant as those I mentioned in the previous section, each nonetheless reveals a potentially important consequence—once you look beyond its superficial implications.


On the whole, women and men are more alike than different when it comes to most of what we document: for example, everyone, male or female, must press the Enter key to transmit data to the computer, must move a mouse or a similar pointing device to access menus or buttons that lack keyboard shortcuts, and must learn about the hazards of working with flammable materials such as hair near open flames. Indeed, men and women both have a wide range of physical and other traits, and these ranges overlap to a considerable degree; many men are shorter than their wives, and female athletes are often considerably stronger than male non-athletes.

Looking beyond the simple, superficial differences that characterize the differences between men and women illustrates how this more careful examination of an audience can reveal real and very important characteristics that we must address in our documentation. The key lies in examining the cliché or stereotype, identifying the parameter (e.g., strength) on which it is based, and asking whether that parameter could influence what we write and how we write about it.

Literature cited

Gray, J. 1992. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Harper-Collins Publishers, New York, NY. 286 p.

Tannen, D. 1990. You just don’t understand. Men and women in conversation. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY. 330 p.

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