know your ... who?

Subject: know your ... who?
From: "McLauchlan, Kevin" <Kevin -dot- McLauchlan -at- safenet-inc -dot- com>
To: <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 19 Feb 2008 15:42:49 -0500

Whenever people (on this list and elsewhere) earnestly utter "know your
readers/users", I have to chuckle.

On the days when I need a break from the techy stuff, it amuses me to
wonder how I would go about knowing them.

I will never meet them. I will never talk to them. I will never
correspond with them via e-mail.

If/when they visit our location, they are business people and very
senior engineers, not the technical grunts (who stay back home in
Europe, India, Korea, Australia, Japan, working in their labs and server
rooms), and they meet with selected staff members here for specific
business purposes.

With one exception that I know, none of the customers has a branch
office in my city. Well, the banks and some governments do, but not the
technical kind of branch offices... I do not have a travel allowance.

We don't have the types of product that are conducive to just borrowing
people off the street (or out of school) to act as documentation
Guinea-pigs, while we (ok, while I) stand behind them with a clipboard
watching where they hesitate or start to break things.

"Hello, Mr. President of <multi-national-banking-conglomerate>.

I understand that you are busy, especially lately with all that
sub-prime mortgage fallout, but could you see your way clear to pointing
me at the people (in whatever part of your far-flung, worldwide
organization) who are likely to be using my company's products? While
you are at it, could you also command-and-compel them to cooperate
enthusiastically and forthrightly with me in determining how my product
documentation could be made better and more readable? As you can
imagine, the better my docs are, the more quickly your people can
complete the (relatively minimal) parts of their jobs that involve our
products, and get on with being productive at whatever they really do
within your company. I wouldn't bother you, but my bosses would like to
minimize the number of phone calls that your engineers and technicians
make to our support line. I'm sure that's a very strong motivation for
you to assist me.

Thanks ever-so, and tah for now. Hope those obscene profits resume
flowing into your coffers momentarily.


WordMangler -at- MyCompany -dot- com"

Truth be told, I've had exactly one experience (in more than 20 years of
this game) with user-testing of documents, and that one product was
killed before those lovely docs went out the door. Some months later,
the entire corporate division was axed. (This was a
previous-previous-previous employer.) I think the final straw was when
the documentation department incurred the expense of a couple of days of
getting students and mall-walkers in for sessions of opening packages
and setting up product using the documentation that they found inside
the packages. Perhaps it was the deli snacks and pastries that we
provided that broke the budgetary back... We may never know. But
anyway, no company since has been willing to fund such an event, even on
a one-off basis.

So, other than the makers of commodity consumer goods, and the makers of
products that are developed in conjunction with your major customers
(aerospace?), how do technical companies with narrow-niche, expensive
product get their tech-writers to know their customer-users.

How do you writerly folk, who work for companies that make esoteric,
tens-of-thousands-of-dollars-per-unit products for technical users who
live on the other side of the world, ever manage to become intimately
acquainted with those users and their documentation needs?

Just curious.


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