Defining Readability Levels

Subject: Defining Readability Levels
From: Sheila Marshall <sheila -at- STK -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 7 Apr 1998 20:09:31 -0400

Why would you expect that? A UNIX sys admin may be just as lost when trying
to explain something out of his/her realm (take using Word as an example)
than the person using the power lawn mower. Or, even better, the UNIX
system admin may be the same person trying to read the power lawn mower --
how are you differentiating your audience? Do you immediately assume that
people using lawn mower equipment aren't educated?

I work with a number of people who assume that just because someone is an
aerospace engineer that person is automagically gifted with all sorts of
unrelated knowledge such as lawn mower maintenance. I don't get it. I don't
know anything about orbital mechanics or UNIX administration because I have
only a slight interest in the subject. I assume that these people have
little interest in writing manuals and debating the use of the indefinite
article for the same reason. I've had to retrieve e-mail for an
engineer--that doesn't mean he's stupid and I'm smart, it means I'm more
familiar with the process.

Users are users. Beginning users are just that. Don't assume a store of
knowledge or a willingness to problem solve because of the subject matter.
UNIX sys admins would most likely never crack open a manual, possibly never
look at a help file. Other users (non-software geeks) expect the manual or
help system to hold their hands --they're new and nothing's familiar.
They're not looking at a user's manual to enrich their lives, they just
want a quick tour of unfamiliar territory or a no-brainer answer to help
them out.

Granted, there are exceptions to every rule. But most users just want to
know enough to get by.

Just my 2-4 cents...


Another key component would seem to be your target audience. I would
expect to use one readability level for a UNIX system administration
manual and a different readability level for a power lawn mower
manual. Is it possible that there is some sort of relationship
between the complexity of the subject matter and the comfort level of
the reader?

That is, can we apply a higher readability level to a manual on a
complex piece of medical equipment because we know the primary user
will be a licensed medical doctor with an advanced degree?

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