Classification-Driven Analysis and Prototype Theory

I focused my last blog post on Activity Theory as presented in Chapter 6 of Solving Problems in Technical Communication (Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber, 2013), and with additional detail from the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK) website ( As our professor pointed out in feedback to my last post, Kirk St. Amant is a professor and researcher who studies Activity Theory in detail as it pertains to international communications. I was excited to see him make an appearance in Chapter 10 of our text.

In Solving Problems, Karen Shriver introduces “three models technical communicators use to understand audience: classification-driven, intuition-driven, and feedback-driven analysis” (page 239). She defines classification-driven analysis as “[proceeding] ‘by brainstorming about the audience and by cataloguing audience demographics (e.g., age, sex, income, education level) or psychographics (e.g., values, lifestyle, attitudes, personality traits, work habits)’” (Solving Problems, page 239-40; Karen Schriver’s Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Texts for Readers, 1997, page 155). Her interpretation of classification-driven analysis can focus “on how cultural differences – from differences in values and perceptions to differences in the way tasks are organized and conceived – affect the content or design of documents” (Solving Problems, page 243).

St. Amant then supports this idea with his thoughts on localization, with the book using website design as an example of documentation being catered to meet “values and expectations of users in different cultures” (St. Amant, “A Prototype Theory Approach to International Website Analysis and Design,” Technical Communication Quarterly, 2005).

St. Amant suggests prototype theory, “a complex theory of how humans categorize new information and images by comparing them to established information” (page 244) as a possible method of developing ideas on localization. Using prototype theory, St. Amant suggests two steps:

  1. Document creators could “identify a representative site and create a checklist of its features, looking especially for patterns that would indicate acceptable ranges of associations”; and
  2. Document creators could then “test this checklist against other sites in the same cultural context” (page 244).

Together, these steps could be completed by technical communicators to determine an audience’s “acceptable and effective” (page 244) elements for their own documents.

Although the example in our textbook focuses on website design, this approach by St. Amant could be applied to a variety of documents. I have always followed these steps in my professional career when creating documentation without realizing there was actual theory behind it:

  • If I needed to create a process guide for a client, I studied existing guides the client already had and noted phrases, acronyms, images, and color and font style choices.
  • If I needed to create process flows, I looked at existing flowcharts and noted use of color, what shapes were utilized, and the flowchart layout.
  • If I was creating policy documentation, I looked at existing policy documents and noted overall tone, document sections, and the level of detail.

I always aimed for my documents to “match” existing documentation so that it would be a cohesive bundle of documents and so that the client would easily accept the new documents as something familiar and legitimate. I was, intentionally but without knowing the theory behind it, trying to make my documents “acceptable and effective” for my readers.

(If you’re looking for additional information on using prototype theory to examine existing materials, I found St. Amant’s full article online. He explores the idea of website design for an international audience in greater detail, and, if you’re like me, you might find it interesting.)


Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. Solving Problems in Technical Communication. The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Karen Schriver. Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Texts for Readers, 1997.

Kirk St. Amant. “A Prototype Theory Approach to International Website Analysis and Design,” Technical Communication Quarterly, 2005.

Published by Allison Styes

I work from home as a full-time Proposal Specialist for a global education company, and spend most of my free time as mom (aka: driver, personal chef, laundry service, peacekeeper, referee, finder-of-socks) to my two daughters, currently ages 10 and 8.

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  1. Hi, Allison-

    Aha! St. Amant recognizes that technical communicators are not superheroes, but rather human beings doing a superb job. Our text states, “Technical communicators cannot become experts on every possible cultural context, so, St. Amant asks, what other methods might they use to develop such localizations?” (Ceraso, 2013, p. 244). You clearly illustrate the prototype theory through your personal experience. I can see how localization applies on a grand and small scale in regard to audience appeal. Do you find that some clients want a complete overhaul of their look, or do most prefer the seamless integration?


    1. Good question – and I think the answer is “it varied.” Some clients felt their existing documentation was ineffective so a complete overhaul was preferred, mostly because they viewed the existing style as bad (even though the style wasn’t the problem). Some clients still had the original document creators on staff, so we might try to keep as much formatting and style as possible (or *if* possible) to avoid hurting any feelings or diminishing the value of what they’d previously created. Personally, I prefer a cohesive look as much as possible, but sometimes it’s just easier to start from scratch.


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