Technical Writing – Designing Your Document

When you start out as a technical author one of the challenges you’ll face is how to design a document so that it reaches the audience in the way you want it to. The good news is that by answering a few simple questions, and keeping your objectives in mind this isn’t very hard to do. So let’s have a look at how we get there.

What is Document Design?

The design phase may occur as part of the planning for your project or after you’ve spent some time analysing your audience. Audience analysis is highly recommended for first time writers.

You need to be able to answer these key questions:

What is the scope of the document?

All that this means is that you must understand what you will include in your document, before you start  writing  it. You can best develop your scope by narrowly defining the purpose of the document and the audience it must reach.

What format will your document be in?

This helps you choose the tools in which you’ll create your document, after all if it’s intended for online help then using Microsoft Word may well not be the best solution.

What will the document look like?

If it’s a product manual you may well want a professionally produced glossy brochure, if it’s an in-house guide A4 printing/photocopying may suffice. For online work the usability of the piece may override the format and so on.

How will you structure the information?

Most documents will have a formal structure be it hierarchical, liner, horizontal (or circular) or vertical if they are for print. Online works will have a more informal structure, it doesn’t really matter which you choose as long as you stick to it.

What are the objectives of document design?

Making the right impression – don’t forget technical authors write for customers, they should be happy with the end product.

Easy to use – this normally means easy to navigate in the way the user wants to look through.

Achieving Understanding – if your reader doesn’t understand your material there’s a definite problem.

Facilitates Learning – ideally your documentation should be memorable so the reader no longer has to struggle with using the product. Visual aids are a key component of success here, pictures really do speak louder than words.

If you keep these key concepts in mind, and can answer those four basic questions then your design is likely to be a winner.