A free, comprehensive, peer-reviewed, award-winning Open Text for students and faculty in college-level courses that require writing and research.

Joe Moxley, Founder, WritingCommons.org

Joe Moxley

Founder
WritingCommons.org

Dear Colleagues and Students,

At Writing Commons, we are happy with the overall success of our project. Since 2011, when we launched at WritingCommons.org, we have hosted 6,315,882 users who have reviewed over 11 million pages. We are thrilled that students and faculty find our site to be helpful. Our ongoing mission is to be the best writing textbook possible. We also happen to be free. While we cannot perhaps claim yet that we are the best possible textbook for technical writing or creative writing courses, we are working on that.

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Learning Outcomes

  • Understand various methods for researching your target audience
  • Employ the best research method for the document you want to produce
  • Composeprofessional/technical documents and oral presentations for multiple audiences and specific purposes by using current technologies.
  • Social and Cultural Contexts.
  • Apply and adapt professional/technical writing conventions, including genre, tone, and style for particular writing situations.
  • Under 18
  • 18-25
  • 26-35
  • 36-55
  • Over 55
  • Television commercial
  • Online advertisement
  • Print advertisement
  • Word of mouth
  • Other (please specify): _____________

It is important to consider your audience when writing a technical communication document.  Categories like race, class, and gender, also known as demographics, can contribute to the way a person perceives a particular issue or document. Other important audience traits to consider are level of familiarity with the subject matter, knowledge of terminology, and educational background. These factors can help you determine what information your audience needs, what questions you should ask them, and how much jargon (field-specific language) you should use. However, keep in mind that, while demographic categories are helpful in determining your target audience, people should always be treated as individuals. Avoid stereotyping by considering that there are always exceptions to the general rule.

So, how does one determine an audience’s demographics, and, therefore, an audience’s needs?  There are several common research methods for distinguishing your target audience:

Library and Internet Research

You can do some preliminary research before interacting with your target audience.  The library and internet can provide many resources for gathering information from studies that have already been conducted, including census reports and other public records, scholarly and trade journals, and official websites for professional organizations and government departments. You can find an annotated list of useful library and internet resources by Amy Coughenour on Writing Commons. It includes the Bureau of Labor Statistics from the U. S. Department of Labor website, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the National Center for Education Statistics.  These resources provide a helpful starting point for researching an audience in a given area. Community forums are also helpful in gauging the opinions of a particular audience. Municipal websites and local newspaper websites often feature community forums or message boards where residents discuss issues that are important to them.

Because library and internet research yield so many resources, you should learn to check the credibility of your sources. First, determine the place or organization that published the source. Is it a prestigious press, university, or professional association? This will get easier as you become more familiar with the top publications in your field, but until you do, a helpful tip is to analyze the document’s design. Generally, but not always, credible sources are presented cleanly and concisely. Also, check the source’s citations. A credible source will usually cite other credible sources. If you are researching empirical data, consider the methods used to collect the data.  Does the report describe the process? Is the data current? Remember that in the fields of health, science, and business, new discoveries occur often and replace old data. Recent publications are, therefore, often more credible than older ones.

Field Research

Field research relies on direct observation and interaction. This includes surveys, interviews, and focus groups, as well as observing your intended audience or subject in context. For example, if you are hired by a hospital to help improve patient communication, you might observe, with permission, some interactions between patients and nurses or doctors. When conducting field research, you should triangulate your data. This means that you should collect your data from multiple sources and observers to ensure accuracy.  A single observation of a single subject may not accurately represent the norm or group. Some examples of field research are:

Surveys

Surveys are particularly useful in providing statistics about demographics and answering specific questions directed towards your audience.  You can ask straightforward questions about race, gender, beliefs, attitudes, etc. For example, you might ask respondents to select their racial identity from a list of choices.  You may also need to ask deeper questions, such as what kind of medications respondents are currently taking. When asking more complex questions, carefully consider the response options and what is implied in the language you use. Keep in mind that the respondents are limited to the options you provide. 

A straightforward survey question might ask the respondent’s age with these options:

A more complex survey question might include an “other” option for additional responses:

Ex: How did you learn about our services?

As with all documents, make sure the survey questions avoid offensive language and are culturally sensitive. For example, if you are researching the level of comfort patients experience in a particular hospital you should avoid a question like “When the nurse comes in, does she always greet you first?” Some respondents might take offense to the assumption that a nurse must be female, so try rephrasing the question to be more gender-neutral: “Does the nurse greet you when he or she enters the room?”

Surveys save time because, although you have to prepare them, people can usually fill them out independently.  However, you may want to reserve time for follow-up conversations, especially because survey respondents have limited answer choices.  If you choose to do this, make sure you provide your contact information in the survey or solicit respondents’ contact information (along with permission to contact them). Independently completed surveys often have a low return rate, so consider how widely you want to spread the survey.  Finally, because surveys often reach a large number of people, it may be difficult to determine whether the results truly reflect the views of your target audience.

For more information on surveys, see The Community Tool Box at the University of Kansas (https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/assessment/assessing-community-needs-and-resources/conduct-surveys/main). 

Interview

Interviews are a more qualitative research approach because answers are more personal and open-ended.  While they can yield more information than the simple “yes/no” questions of a survey, answers represent the particular perspective of the interviewee.  You also have a much smaller sample because of the amount of time it takes to conduct interviews. Prepare your questions ahead of time; you should prepare more than you are likely to need and avoid the “yes/no” questions usually reserved for surveys. For example, instead of asking a participant if he or she sleeps for a full eight hours every night, you might receive more precise results by asking how many hours of sleep he or she receives on average. Be prepared with follow-up questions to different possible responses and expect to be engaged in a conversation with the interviewee. If the participant replies that he or she gets very little sleep on average, you might then ask about his or her daily routine or work schedule.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are interviews conducted with a small group of people at the same time.  You should create a comfortable setting to encourage participants to interact not only with you, but with each other. Participants should be free to discuss their opinions, but a moderator should keep them on task and initiate conversation.  The moderator should also mitigate any hostility between personalities and conclude the session within 1-2 hours. You should conduct a few focus groups for any given project to ensure reliable sampling.

Each of these methods has its merits and challenges, and the method you choose to use should depend on the context of your project. For example, focus groups and interviews may be a better choice when you have already narrowed down your target audience. Often, the process of producing a document for a specific audience will require a combination of these methods. You might begin with library or internet research to learn about an area’s demographics, and then conduct interviews with people who actually use the product about which you are creating a pamphlet.

Exercise

Choose the best audience research method (this may be one or a combination) for each scenario and explain your decision:

A (health sciences)

  1. You are creating a pamphlet describing the benefits and side effects of a pill that helps lower cholesterol. Your employer is the pharmaceutical company that produces the pill. They have supplied the data, but you need to present it clearly to users and potential users of the medication.
  2. You are designing a computer patient information system for a hospital and want to know how to make it most efficient for doctors, nurses, and staff.
  3. You want to research the demographics of an area surrounding a new medical center to determine what services would be most useful.
  4. You have developed a new user manual for a printer, and you want to find out if it is helpful to users of the product.
  5. You need to research a city’s traffic patterns to decide exactly where to install signs and directions towards a newly constructed bridge.
  6. You have developed a tutorial for a new computer software program, and want to determine its usefulness to users.
  7. You are creating a handout for a meeting that you will run with a colleague, and you want to make sure you list all major talking points for the both of you.
  8. You are producing a report on your company’s financial standing for potential investors.
  9. You are giving a presentation on your company’s latest product to an audience of potential buyers. You want to research their needs in addition to providing proof of the product’s success with other groups.

B (engineering)

C (professional/business writing)

References

Heifferon, B. A. (2005). Writing in the Health Professions. New York, NY: Pearson Education.

University of Kansas Community Tool Box (n.d.). Section 13: Conducting Surveys. Chapter 3:Assessing Community Needs and Resources. Learn a Skill. Retrieved from:

https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/assessment/assessing-community-needs-and-resources/conduct-surveys/main

Cassandra Branham, Editor-in-Chief WritingCommons.org

Cassandra Branham

Editor-in-Chief
WritingCommons.org

Dear Colleagues and Students,

Welcome to Writing Commons, an open-education resource for instructors and students of writing across the disciplines. Our mission is to provide a high-quality, cost free resource to support students in the development of writing, research, and critical thinking practices.

This summer, we have been working on a site redesign in an effort to increase the usability of our site for both instructors and students. Our most significant change has been the inclusion of additional categories and subcategories to create a more intuitive hierarchy within the site.

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