The Switch to Reader-Centered Documents

One of the central causes of poor writing is a lack of a thorough understanding of the audience. What are the problems that readers have to solve, and how can we help them? Too many writers believe that people will understand what they have written just because the writers themselves understand it.

Good writing always begins with a study of the readers' reading skills, their actual physical situation, the problems they face, the motivation they need, and the actions they need to take.

About 20 years ago, we began hearing about "user-centered documents" and "task-oriented design." We became less focused on the knowledge we wanted to impart and more on the motivation and actions of the reader. We began to see that people often need more than information to do their job.

I once knew a professional trainer who exemplified user-centered instruction. Large corporations and legal firms paid her big bucks to teach secretaries how to use Word Perfect. Many secretaries, she explained, had worked with the program for years without having the opportunity or time to learn its most basic features. Some were still using spaces instead of the tab control. Most were still terrified of computers. She taught only one-on-one, insisting that, during the two-day sessions, there were to be no interruptions or calls.

She started by laying the secretary's hands on the keyboard and placing her own hands on top of them, and saying, "Relax. You don't have to know everything there is to know about Word Perfect. Instead, we will learn how to do a letter, a pleading, a brief, and a memo. By tomorrow afternoon, you will know all you need to know about Word Perfect." The next two days, she helped the secretary make sense of the hands-on experience. She taught her how to detect errors and recover from them, giving her a sense of control over a situation that for months had been a mine field waiting to explode.

It is this same respect for the user's activity that has revolutionized all forms of communication. Our job now is not to put on paper all there is to say about an action or task, but of conducting a guided exploration through it, one that encourages independent thinking and problem solving. We now anchor our documents in the domain of the users' tasks. We encourage activity and use it as a basis for learning–instead of the other way around.

Writing user-centered documentation requires a constant process of discovery—beginning with the thorough analysis of the user's needs, capabilities, and the situation in which the document will be used. It continues with conferring with the user on every step of the way in order to discover and solve problems as the project moves to completion.

Writers of all types are seeing themselves as helping real people solve problems and make sense of what they need to accomplish a task or do their work.

William H. DuBay
15903 Vincent Rd. N.W.
Poulsbo, WA 98370
Phone: 360 261 8955
Email: info@impact-information.com