Effective User Documentation is the second line of defense in saving your profits and pleasing your customers. The first line of defense would be to create products which require no -- or minimal -- documentation; in reality, User Documentation can always benefit your User and hence benefit your product.
Documentation Helps Marketing. The Tilley hat advertises that it is the only hat that comes with a four-page User manual (other companies’ hats have no User manual). Tilley have been advertising that way for years...the advertising about the User manual must be doing something good!
We shall briefly define “User Documentation” as anything that someone produces to assist the User with a product. It doesn’t matter if the documentation is a label on the product, a 500-page User manual, (includes) context-sensitive help, or is an Internet Website. If something is intended to help the User with the product, then we’ll call it “User Documentation”.
You’re taking this Course because you have to write User Documentation for some kind of product. You need to tell a User how to do what he or she needs to do to be effective with your product. You might have chosen this task yourself, or you might have had this job assigned to you. It doesn’t matter.
By writing great User Documentation you achieve these benefits for your product and your company:
Reduce support costs: 1
Reduce support costs: 2
Increase product value
Reduce User frustration; increase User satisfaction
Enhance the image of your organization
It is best all around if you do the best possible job in creating the documentation. Doing a good job will enhance your self-esteem and job value. If the product does better, you do better.
You can learn to write effective documentation quickly. This is the Course to do it!
This Course will help you create your documentation. But it should do much more than that. My goal is to get you to be as efficient and compassionate in providing great support to your Users as possible. So we shall go beyond just the normal stuff about producing topic lists, ordering them, writing, grammar (we will minimize our contact with that topic, saving the grammar work for our editor) and so forth. We’ll mention making your product an Internet Supported Product, and what that means. We’ll describe the two-edged sword of “access” to the information you are trying to provide.
But most of all, by the end of this Course, you will be well on your way to writing the document that you have to produce for your real-life work. As you progress through this Course you will actually complete the organization and sections of the documentation that you have to produce. After that, you will repeat the techniques you learn here to complete all the sections and subsections of your document. So ideally, you have a project in mind. With that, let’s start.
Disclaimer: You are responsible for what
you write. Before publishing
any document related to your organization or its products, it is your
responsibility to get it approved by those in your organization who have the
Let’s talk about User Documentation.
The purpose of User Documentation is simple: It’s to make the User of your product effective with your product. “Effective” means being able to use your product correctly, and safely. Good User Documentation helps the User receive the maximum value from the product. Such documentation explains the features of the product, what needs of the User they fulfill, and how (and when) to use the features. It also helps the User when things go wrong.
Another way of saying this is that good User Documentation makes the User more comfortable with the product. The documentation helps remove uncertainties that the User might have with the product. Uncertainties breed discomfort. Here’s an example:
Non-Drowsy or Anti-Drowsy. I have a cold and I want to take some decongestants to clear
the “stuffiness” in my nose. The
package says that the medication is non-drowsy (it won’t put you to sleep, so
the User can function during the day).
I have no idea what that means, as there are at least two ways to
implement something as “non-drowsy.”
One way is to use medications that do not have a side effect of causing
drowsiness. The other way is to use
medications that will cause drowsiness, and then add some sort of stimulant
to counteract the drowsiness.
As this example demonstrates the needed User Documentation not only tells how to use the product, but it also tells us about the product. I wanted to know what the product would do to me as well as for me.
I would like to expand the definition of “documentation” to include any (non-marketing) contact with the User. For example, if you have a website which supports your products (a concept I strongly recommend), then the concepts we discuss in this Course will be relevant to your website.
Acme Airlines’ Extra Baggage. My family and I were traveling via Acme Airlines to my
brother-in-law’s wedding. Our wedding
gift was a painting measuring about 30 x 36 inches. We needed to know if we could bring this along as baggage. So I checked the Acme website, and found
the correct page.
Documentation is a very important part of every product. Documentation enables the User of the product to get maximum benefit from the product. One purpose of User Documentation is to counteract incorrect notions that your Users might have about your product. Look at this example...
User Documentation to counteract previous experience. Let me give you an example: a bottle of
Hair Shampoo and Conditioner (a combined product). There are no instructions on this product. It seems like instructions would really
not be needed. Just wash your hair
with the stuff.
Thus your documentation should deal with two aspects of the User/Reader’s history:
1. Their lack of knowledge about how to use your product
2. Their history that has taught them things that would interfere with best use of your product.
If you create a great product, and nobody can figure out how to use it (or they use it incorrectly or incompletely), then how “great” is your product? This is very much like the philosophical discussion about a tree falling in a forest. If there’s no one to hear it, does the tree make a sound? You can be assured that there is no similar “philosophical discussion” about documentation. If a product or some of its major features are unused because of poor documentation, the product cannot be “great.” Think of the User Documentation as the final component that makes your product wonderful.
Documentation Separates the Failed from the
Successful. I bought a replacement
battery for a cell phone. I did the
transaction over the Internet, and was amazed at the low cost and speed that
the battery arrived. All I got in the package was the battery (in a plastic
wrap) and an invoice. And it worked well for about three days. Then it did not work at all.
Good documentation costs less than poor documentation. If the product documentation stinks then the Users will have to turn to your customer service center to get answers. That costs BIG, whether the contact is via e-mail or telephone.
Good documentation adds value to the product. In addition to enabling the User to get maximum benefit from your product, it adds psychological components such showing your enterprise cares about the User, and wants the User to be successful with your product.
Good documentation helps the User to learn more about the product, and helps cure the product’s “warts.” Every product has shortcomings (that’s one reason why there are future versions); I call these shortcomings “warts.”
Can You Flush a Toilet?
The Acme Wellsaver toilet is a low flush toilet; it uses less water
than a regular toilet. That’s better
for the environment. However -- and
there were comedy televisions shows about this -- low flush toilets do not do
the best job for large amounts of “solid waste” (their term). It turns out that the Wellsaver has a
hidden feature. If you hold the handle
down while flushing, you get more water in your flush; ideal for that solid
waste problem. Unfortunately, the
“Homeowners Guide” doesn’t mention this useful fact.
Never Forget That Users are Selfish
Hopefully, I have fired you up so that you are interested in producing good (or great) documentation. Since I am writing this Course for you, I need to tell you what I think of you.
Toothpicks are a commodity item.
You buy them or you don't. Why
would someone write User Documentation for a box of toothpicks, and how would
they distribute the document? It
seems odd to have a several page document attached to each box of toothpicks.
(This is a what not to do section, as companies do not want to get their products returned.)
As a birthday gift I received an Acme digital (timer)
coffee maker with an insulated carafe.
(The coffee maker is only part of the gift; the poor User Manual
provided some fruit for this Course, and was the greater gift.)
I also have an Acme toaster. The documentation for this device asks me to unplug it after
each use. That is not how I
use a toaster. I prefer to keep the
toaster on the counter, plugged into the electrical outlet. I do not have to unplug the Acme
coffeemaker, my microwave oven, telephone or refrigerator. I do not like the idea of having to unplug
the toaster. My question to Acme: is
there a reason to have to unplug this device, or is someone being
overly cautious. I am confused about
that point; I feel a bit unsafe. The
documentation (or product design) has failed me. Perhaps I shall return it…
In both these cases, it was a documentation failure that prompted me to think about returning the products. Please keep in mind -- and keep it in the minds of those who design and manage product development -- that documentation is an essential component of the product and the User's satisfaction with the product.
Sorry, but I have another example (and there are many,
The message that we can get from these examples include:
O Make sure your documentation is correct; that it matches the product it is trying to describe
O Make sure that your documentation does not wrongly lead a Reader to think that there is something wrong with your product or that it is inferior to similar products, when it really is not
O Make sure your documentation is clear and easily understood
This is complicated.
You may have a User manual that describes more than one version of
a product. For example, it may
describe coffee makers with both glass and insulated carafes, and with or
without a timer option.
As you write your User Document with the guidance of this Course, you will (hopefully!) avoid these pitfalls.
(c) 2006 Igetitnow! Training, Inc.