How do different cultures use your documentation?

The other day, I sat in a meeting in which we were talking about our product documentation, and someone mentioned something that had never occurred to me.

It had to do with who used our product documentation.

I found out that native English speakers (for the sake of this article, I’ll refer to them as “arch-typical American end-users” — whatever that means) mostly ignored the documentation (that I had written), inferred what they needed primarily from the application interface, and used the documentation primarily as a reference source.  This was something I’d anticipated, so naturally, I developed the document with that mindset.

However, I learned that users whose first language was not English utilized the document much, much differently.  (Disclosure: I currently work in an office where the majority of my coworkers are Asian-Indian.)  Many of them first read the documentation thoroughly before using the application.

I don’t know how much these people used the document as a reference guide as compared to how much they used the UI — we didn’t go into that discussion — but it completely changed my mindset as to how to approach documentation development.  I haven’t (yet) done any research, but I am now curious as to how people from different cultures and backgrounds approach documentation.  I have no doubt that this topic has been researched; if anyone knows of any authors or references, feel free to say so in the comments section.

For those of you who don’t know me, I should mention that I am Asian-American (specifically, Korean-American), but I am a native English speaker.  I don’t speak any other language fluently.  I do not speak Korean (what little I know came from what little my grandmother tried to teach me and from M*A*S*H reruns), and my personal foreign language experience comes from my German classes in high school and college.  That puts me in a unique situation; when it comes to my writing, my initial audience is American-English speakers, but my ancestral background makes me appreciate audiences from other cultures as well.

Cultural differences in communication are always an interesting topic.  I remember reading an article about how Chevrolet had issues with selling a particular model of their car in Spanish-speaking countries, because “Nova” translates to “not going.”  I also recall a conversation with someone who mentioned that a simple American gestures as a thumbs-up is the equivalent of “flipping someone the bird” in some other countries.  So it goes to show that what you’re trying to communicate could actually be miscommunicated, depending on your audience’s culture.

I’ve espoused time and again that a writer needs to know his or her audience when developing a document, and I continue to do so.  This realization made me realize that my audience is more diverse than I thought it was, and that I will need to plan for that whenever I am developing documentation.  And it’s not just a matter of what I’m writing in my words — it’s also a matter of how my document will be used.

So I guess the moral of the story is to be wary of what you’re writing.  You never know who will be reading — or how they will be using it.

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