Determining how the document will be used

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How a document will be used, and the environment in which it will be used can influence both the writing style and the format of the communication. Before starting to write (or even design) a document, it is therefore necessary to determine how the document will be used.

How the information will be used

Can affect form and layout. Ask yourself: what will the user do with the communication? What do they want the communication for? Examples:

  • Read once and remembered (e.g. instructions on how to use a vacuum cleaner);
  • Followed step by step (e.g. installation instructions);
  • Referred to every so often for particular information (e.g. user guide);
  • Fault finding (e.g. troubleshooting);
  • General information (e.g. to obtain knowledge but not necessarily to meet a specific requirement or in order to carry out a specific task).

The environment in which the document will be used

If possible, visit the environment in which the document will be used. Try to witness the users operating in the same conditions as those in which they will need to refer to the documentation. You will need to make sure that the documentation is usable in these conditions. Although it is impossible to cover every possible environment here, some things to consider, and an explanation of how this would affect the documentation, are shown below:


Consider whether the user has enough space to open a manual on their desk (or other workspace). It may be necessary to produce smaller manuals, or spiral-bound ones instead of ring-bound ones so that they take up less space.

Consider whether the user will be away from their workspace when they need to refer to the documentation. For example, if the documentation is an inspection checklist, and they will need to refer to it whilst walking around a production plant, the documentation needs to be provided in a portable form that can be referred to when standing.

Consider whether the user has anywhere to store documents (such as a cupboard). Increasingly, system users are 'hot-docking' (where they do not have their own designated workspace, but log on wherever they can find a free desk). In such circumstances, users would need to carry the documentation with them wherever they go. Here, it would be preferable to provide on-line documentation (even if this is on a CD-ROM that they can take with them).

Cleanliness and dryness

Consider whether the environment in which the documentation will be used is dry or not. If the environment will be humid (for example, tropical climates, machine rooms, etc.) consider using a grade of paper that is more resistant to this (that is, will not distort).

Similarly, if the environment will be dirty (such as down a coal mine, or in a machinist's workshop) consider using a medium that is dirt-resistant. Consider 'waxing' (a finish that applies a thin coat of wax to the paper) or laminating documentation pages.

External environments

Special considerations taken where the documentation will be used outside. In particular:

  • Check whether the environment is windy. If it is, then it will be necessary to use sturdier paper (perhaps cardboard), and to make sure that there is some way of securing this whilst it is being used - such as a hard cover, and straps or clips to hold the paper down at the opened page. It is also a good idea to use smaller pages so that there is less for the wind to tear at.
  • Check if the documentation will be referred to in the rain. If so, then it will be necessary to provide waterproof material - perhaps by laminating or rubberizing. If the documentation will also be referred to inside, but only a page at a time referred to outside, then think about some kind of waterproof and see-through pouch, so that users can turn to the correct page and place the documentation 'required-page-out' in the pouch, before stepping outside.


Consider the amount of light available to the user when reading the documentation. Often they will be in an office or other well-lit space, but this may not always be the case. Examples are:

  • Communications that must be legible in the dark, such as outside signage, or emergency documentation to be used in a power cut. Here, consider using highly-reflective or luminous materials. Note that luminous lettering does not tend to work well - it blurs. Instead, consider black text on a luminous background.
  • Environments with minimal lighting such as sewers or other underground tunnels. Here, consider using high-contrast materials, and/or larger type.
  • Relatively inaccessible parts of plants or machinery where there is not much light (for example, when working on the underneath of a car). Again, consider the use of high-contrast materials. In addition, consider providing the full documentation in a standard form, and then a quick-reference using high-contrast materials (because it may not be feasible to provide the full set of documentation using high-contrast materials, but the users may be able to move in and out of full lighting).

Handling capabilities

Consider whether the user will be able physically to handle the documentation whilst they are referring to it. In some cases, the user will be able to see the documentation but cannot physically touch it with their hands - for example where they will have tools in both their hands, or where their hands are sterile. In these cases, it is essential to make sure that all of the information that they require is visible at the same time - that is they are not required to turn the pages. Pay closer attention to the information layout, and consider using over-size pages.

In other cases, the users may be able to touch the documentation, but may be limited in their manipulation of it. Consider cases where the user will be wearing thick gloves (such as in sub-zero temperatures, or where safety gloves are required). Here, an option would be to use thick pages (for example, card, or laminated) and over-size tabs that can be used to flip the pages over.

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