Laying the Groundwork: Project Planning and Project Analysis

The CPTC Foundation level focuses on knowledge of the field as represented by nine key competency areas. The first two competency areas, Project Planning and Project Analysis, lay the groundwork for what is a long-established goal in technical communication: deliver the right information to the right people in the right format at the right time.

Project Planning

Project Planning focuses on the work involved to plan and manage not only the documents, but also the work teams involved on the project. This means knowing and understanding how the technical communication lifecycle works. Richard Johnson-Sheehan’s text, Technical Communication Today (5th ed.), defines five stages in the lifecycle:

  • Planning and researching: to define, analyze, and research the rhetorical situation of your project. The rhetorical situation includes the purpose, subject, readers, and context.
  • Organizing and drafting: to shape the ideas and content based on the selected genre.
  • Improving style: to continually edit and refine the project’s style.
  • Designing: to provide users with accessible information, effective graphics, and readable layout.
  • Revising and editing: to review the document and ensure the readers receive the information they need.

The key to Project Planning is first recognizing that the lifecycle stages are an iterative process, not linear. As the project progresses, we move from one stage to another, but circumstances may require that we revert and perform additional work before continuing. For example, while working on a draft, we may discover additional research is needed. This in turn may require adjusting the project schedule.

These lifecycle stages apply to the different genres within technical communication, from emails and letters, to proposals to user guides and policy manuals. There will always be some degree of “planning, organizing, improving, designing, and revising” on a documentation project, just as there will always be a rhetorical situation for a project.

According to Johnson-Sheehan, this rhetorical situation is critical. The subject defines the scope of the project, while the purpose explains what the project will do. After we have a general idea of the subject and purpose, we can begin strategic planning. Strategic planning involves setting objectives, creating a task list, and developing a timeline. An objective is like the project purpose, but the analysis goes deeper:

  • Why are you doing this project?
  • Why is the project important?
  • What problems is the project expected to solve?

Tasks support the project objectives and map to the stages within the lifecycle. Working backwards from a deadline, we can assign checkpoints or milestones, and then fill in the project timeline with tasks related to planning and researching, organizing and drafting, and so on.

The Project Planning competency also addresses tracking progress and the importance of activity reports. Progress and status reports are an important communication tool for many teams. And remember when I mentioned that the project lifecycle is iterative? By tracking progress against a project timeline, we collect data and experience that will help us create more accurate project schedules in the future.

Through mastery of the Project Planning competency, technical communicators demonstrate knowledge of:

  • The writing process and its relationship to the planning of a team’s work.
  • The rhetorical situation and how it prepares us for defining our readers.

Strategic planning in a technical communication context.

Project Analysis

The rhetorical situation and project plan provide a framework or compass by which the team can start working. The Project Analysis competency builds on this information to focus on the reader and develop a reader profile. Why is this important? In technical communication, deliverables are targeted towards specific audiences. A reader profile will tell us about the readers’ distinct needs, background, abilities, and experiences and help us understand how readers will use the documents we produce.

The first step in developing the reader profile is to identify the types of readers:

  • Primary readers are the action takers, the main audience.
  • Secondary readers are the advisors, the people who may already know about the subject and who advise the primary readers (e.g., engineers, lawyers, scientists, etc.).
  • Tertiary readers are evaluators and include people who have an interest in the document’s information (e.g., auditors, reporters, competitors, etc.).

Gatekeepers are supervisors who review the document before it is sent to the primary readers.
After identifying the document’s readers, we can develop profiles to identify their needs, values, and attitudes. Johnson-Sheehan recommends using a matrix to capture this information.

  • Needs: What information do the primary readers need to make a decision? What to the secondary readers need to make a recommendation?
  • Values: What do the readers value most? Are you writing for an audience that values profit or one that values efficiency? Do they value accuracy? How much do they value social concerns?
  • Attitudes: What are the readers’ attitudes towards the subject and the company? Will they embrace the topic or be skeptical?

Context has several components, and again, it is helpful to use a matrix when assessing the readers’ context. This assessment goes beyond “where and when” to evaluate:

  • Physical: Where will the readers use the document?
  • Economic: What money-related issues will restrict the readers’ actions?
  • Political: Are there micropolitical or macropolitical trends that will influence the readers?
  • Ethical: What are the personal, social, or environmental issues that shape the reader’s responses?

The matrix approach seems simple, yet it is an effective exercise for brainstorming readers and their characteristics, especially with team members or clients who have never done personas or user analysis before.

Taking the time to identify reader types, assess readers, and develop a reader profiles has its benefits. The profiles can help you decide the most appropriate document type for your project. For example, a quick reference guide may be more appropriate than an instruction manual. Next, information in the profiles can improve your decisions regarding content, organization, style, and design of your documents. And if your documents will be read by a global audience, then reader profiles will help you identify multicultural issues that may affect content, organization, design, and style.

Through mastery of the Project Analysis competency, technical communicators demonstrate knowledge of:

  • Reader profiles and the implications of working with global audiences.
  • The process and benefits of mapping information needs to an audience.
  • The methods for analyzing the different contexts in which readers will use an information product.

Hester, Chris. ©2017 Intercom, Volume 64 Issue 3, March 2017