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How Small Companies Can Create Great User Documents

Overview

Your product needs User Documentation (manuals, instructions, etc), but your small company (20 to 100 employees) has no in-house staff to create that documentation.  This article describes how to select and enable your "non-writer" employees to create Great User Documentation.  

You NEED Great User Documents

Your Product needs Great User Documents (Instruction Manuals, User Guides, Reference Manuals, Instruction Sheets, etc. ):

Your Users deserve Great User Documents:

Great User Documentation will reduce support costs, increase User satisfaction, and increase your profit (fewer returns and more positive recommendations).

But You Have No Writing Staff

Yes you do!  If you can find employees who are between projects, or want to take on additional responsibilities and acquire new skills, then these can be your writing staff.

However, you may be considering hiring an outside freelance writer.  Perhaps that is a good choice.  However, let me list some benefits of using in-house non-writers over freelance writers:

Selecting Who Will Write

Ask your staff if they would like to write the User Document for a particular product: 

Convincing Your New Writers

If they have other objections to the writing assignment, evaluate their objections, and determine if you have a reasonable argument to overcome their objections.  If not, perhaps you had better find someone else for the writing project.

You Can Enable Non-Writers to Write

Most of your employees who have made it through an education system, and have been hired by your company, can probably write. They may be fearful of writing.  I believe that if they can think clearly and explain something verbally to someone sitting next to them, then they can write Great User Documents.

To just thrust a writing assignment on the non-writer is unfair and will prove to be unproductive.  You need to support the new writer.

How to Support Your New Writers

Training

Support:

Resources:

The resource links in the "Resources" or "About the Author" section of this article will help your new writer get going.

Beware of Technical Lures

If your new writers come from your technical areas, they may want to spend time learning writing technology.  They do not need it! 

My point is not to spend the time learning new tools that might not benefit your company's situation.  Let's look at the two popular lures:

1.  Fancy Writing Software

Very few professional technical writers would use a word processor to create a large User Document.  However, in all likelihood you will NOT be creating a mammoth User Document.  Most likely your User Document will be less than 40 pages.  A modern word processor (such as Microsoft Word, WordPerfect or Lotus WordPro, all are trademarks) will easily do the task.

2.  Content Management System (CMS)

I believe that the documentation industry has incorrectly focused itself on Content Management Systems (CMS's). CMS's are reasonable tools for large companies like Microsoft, IBM, and Toyota who have huge numbers of documents.  For smaller companies  (like yours), CMS's are a diversion from the real task, which is "how to produce the User Documentation that your product needs and your Users deserve."

Aha! Your new writer might say that by writing in XML or by using a CMS he/she will be able to create the text in one format and easily produce that text in HTML, printed form, or as a PDF (Portable Document Format, used by the Adobe Reader).  This is not a valid argument for your situation.  Modern word processors have the capability of producing HTML documents, converting their output to PDF, as well as printing. 

Another argument is that a CMS will enable writers to re-use content from one product to another.  I believe that this argument is not relevant to companies with only a few products.  While old-fashioned, a good library system and using cut and paste will suffice for the smaller company.

Instead, Focus On These

Rather than spending time learning new technology that may or may not help your writing project, your writers (in fact, all writers) should be focusing on what is important to the Users of your product.  These are:

If your new writers do know how to use writing tools such as FrameMaker (tm) or a Content Management System (and one is set up) then of course they should use these tools.  But everyone should remember that the Reader (the User of your product) only sees the content via the accessibility to that content. Don't let the technology get in the way of helping your Reader.

The Bottom Line

Most literate people, with reasonable support and resources, can be guided to create effective User Documentation.  A good place to find resources is listed in the "Resources" or the "About the Author" section of this article.

Resources

Barry Millman, Ph.D., has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering (1966, Carnegie Institute of Technology) and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Psychology (Human Information Processing, University of Calgary).  He has been a consultant for over 25 years, an instructor, course developer, and award-winning speaker.  For the past seven years he has been researching and creating resources to help organizations create great User Documents. 

Visit: http://www.greatuserdocs.com/ for resources to help you create the User Documents that your Product needs and your Users deserve.

Visit http://www.greatuserdocs.com/ReadingRoom.htm for more articles like this one.

You may copy and distribute this article freely.  However you must keep the entire article and Resources sections intact, with no changes, additions, or deletions.

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