Into our reader’s world

You’ve parachuted onto a random stretch of road. You could be anywhere in the world. How quickly can you figure out where you are?

That’s the idea behind GeoGuessr, a web game that’s occupied some — ahem, too much — of my time lately. You might find yourself on a muddy road outside an Eastern European village, a lonely highway in West Texas, or a scenic drive on the Isle of Skye. (For that one, I guessed New Zealand — exactly halfway around the world. Zero points!)

Technical writers are used to this. We parachute into our reader’s world, and we do whatever we can to orient ourselves. We try to understand their work environment, their background, and anything else that helps us communicate with them.

geoguessr_screenshot.png

A rocky coastline. A car driving on the right. Are you on Vancouver Island? Almost: you’re on the Olympic Peninsula, and that’s Vancouver Island in the distance. (Screen shot from GeoGuessr)

In GeoGuessr, you use whatever clues you can find. The game is based on Google Street view, so you can move back and forth, explore intersecting roads, and zoom in on your surroundings.

You’re looking for clues in topography, road signs (Do you recognize the language? Place names?), vegetation (Tropical? Subarctic?) — anything that would suggest or disqualify a particular location.

As technical writers, we look for clues to orient ourselves to the reader’s world. We look to:

  • Technical support: What problems are our readers having because they lack information they need?
  • Personas: What specialized knowledge do our readers have — or, more to the point, lack?
  • Sales and Marketing: What can they tell me about my reader’s needs, based on their interactions with customers?
  • Direct feedback: When that reader said she couldn’t find something, what was the real issue? Did I put it in the wrong place? Express it in terms the reader didn’t understand? Omit the keywords that would’ve helped the reader find it using Search?

As I play GeoGuessr, I learn how to better pick up clues and improve my score. In the art of technical writing, we similarly learn to orient ourselves to our reader’s world. It’s challenging. It’s even kind of fun. And there’s always room to get better.

Where do you go to learn more about your reader? Got any tips for spotting clues?

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