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Wikipedia defines Personalization as the act of “…tailoring a service or a product to accommodate specific individuals…to improve customer satisfaction, digital sales conversion, marketing results, branding, website metrics as well as for advertising.” Companies such as Amazon and Netflix are very successful at providing a unique shopping experience tailored to the interests of each of their millions of customers. I am a customer of both companies, and whenever I log into Amazon, I am provided with several items similar to other items I’ve either looked at or purchased. Netflix will recommend shows and movies based on the interest profile I completed upon signing up for an account. These are both examples of how websites personalize content.

When it comes to technical documentation such as user manuals, help file, or any other information product whose purpose is to instruct users how to properly and safely do or use something, there is much more work a technical writer must do that goes beyond tracking search histories to ensure the information product truly satisfies the needs of the intended user. Personalization in Technical Communication boils down to one thing: knowing one’s audience.

Users of technical documentation come in all types: from occupation (installers, technical support, sales/marketing, network administrators, and end-users) to skill level (beginner, intermediate, and advanced). The days of a “one size fits all” manual (or information product) are gone. Users need the information they are looking for and they need it now.

So, how does a technical writer go about delivering customized information? With the right support, there are several things a technical writer can do to get to know the target audience better:

  • Conduct surveys of a sample population of users to learn if they use (or don’t use) the current documentation, what they like and don’t like about it, and what they would like to see changed or improved based on documentation they have used before that proved helpful.
  • Find out which learning styles work best for your users. Are they visual learners? Audial? Hands-on? Most users have multiple learning styles. Short videos, podcasts, and virtual exercises are all ways to complement textual content. The VARK questionnaire is an excellent tool to help learn about learning styles.
  • If possible, arrange for a focus group to garner the same information that a survey gathers, but in an in-person setting.
  • If the company has a training department, solicit feedback from the trainers and students when they are in-house.
  • If the company has a user experience team, work with them to participate in usability tests to see where participants struggle with a product (be it a physical product or software interface) and see how these struggles could be addressed in the documentation.

Once a solid understanding of the audience is attained, then software features such as conditional tags can be used to mark content that applies to a specific ability level or personnel type. When the output is generated, deliverables intended for specific audience types will be available, allowing the user to immediately get the content that is important to them. Products like Adobe Framemaker and Robohelp, and Madcap Blaze and Flare support conditional tagging.

DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture), an XML standard, is another option to help users get to the content they need. With DITA, content is separated into specific topic types based on the purpose of the content. For example, explanatory, overview content goes into a concept topic; procedural, step-by-step content goes into a task topic; specific, highly detailed information, appendices, or look-up tables go into reference topics. The topics are then given titles that reflect the type of content they contain. So, a beginner user may first go to the “About the Product” topic whereas an experienced user may go straight to the “Configure the Network” topic. DITA provides opportunities to address different user needs simply by the arrangement and placement of content.

As for sites like Amazon and Netflix and their personalized user experiences, if a company has a hosted software product, it is probably possible that when a user logs in, truly tailored technical documentation can be delivered to that user based on their credentials, which would identify skill level and/or occupation. Imagine logging in and not only does the software interface greet you by name, but the technical content is customized to your individual needs – content that not only is on-demand and helpful, but provides a pleasant and satisfactory customer experience. That is the future of personalized technical documentation!