"In-House User Documents" Series


 

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How Poor In-House User Documents Cost You Twice & What to Do About It

Overview

Many organizations produce in-house tools or modify commercially-available tools for their own use.   These tools should get documented so they are of use to others in the organization.

If this documentation is not created or is poorly written, it costs you twice:

Psychological costs also affect both the external and the in-house User.

The First Cost: Technical Support

This is the cost you incur whenever you produce poor (or no) User Documents.  It arises for any User when he/she needs technical support.  For external Users, the cost is your technical support staff, toll-free telephone lines, etc.

For internal Users the cost is the time spent by the developer or modifier of the tool to answer the questions of his/her fellow employee.  This is an expensive technical support cost...these people are usually paid more than your technical support staff.  Thus this first cost is even greater for poor in-house documentation than for shoddy documentation released to the public.

The Second Cost: User's Time & Resources

For Users outside your company, the second cost is assumed by the Users themselves or their employers.  These confused Users are expending their company's time: the time lost trying to get the product to work, and the time spent dealing with your technical support. 

For your in-house Users, this cost is borne by your company.  It is your employee--on your time-- that is wasting your company resources trying to use an arcane product or document.  Here is where your deficient in-house documentation costs you twice.

Psychological Costs Affect All Readers

In addition to these time and monetary costs, there are the psychological costs wreaked by poor User Documentation.

For frustrated Users outside your company, your poor documentation results in a negative perception of your company and its products.  This may result in loss of business.

For users inside your company, the psychological cost is decreased employee morale, as evidenced from these possible statements:

Thus the ill will outside your company can cost you future sales; the ill will inside your company can cost in decreased employee morale.

I wrote an article for my blog indicating the benefits and need for documenting systems that only the creator of the system will use.  Click here to see that post.

Solution: Informal Reviews

Once someone writes a User Document for an in-house tool, that document should be informally reviewed. 

Self-Review

The author can perform the first review on his/her own. 

Use your word processor's spelling checker to correct common errors.  You can use the word processor's grammar checker, however most of these are inaccurate.

Before doing this review, let the document sit for a day or two.  This will help you forget what you meant in your unclear writing.  When you do the review and you find yourself asking "what did I mean here?" you will have found a place in the document that needs revision.

When doing the review, imagine you are user of the tool and reader of the document.  Imagine the tasks that the tool user wants to do.  Does the document enable the Reader to find what he/she needs?  Is the writing accurate (correctly describes the tool), clear, and complete? Make the changes that would improve the document.

External Review

Then, if possible, use an external reviewer (inside your company).  To do this, the writer should:

1. Find a potential User of the tool. This should be someone who is not already familiar with the tool, and as similar to the target audience of the tool as reasonable. 

2.  Have that reviewer use the document to guide him/her in use of the tool.  Solicit comments on the document.  Note the suggested changes, additions, deletions, clarifications requested by the reviewer.  Some questions to ask might include:

3.  The writer should make changes as necessary.

If you cannot perform this "semiformal" review, then get anyone other than yourself to simply read the document, and make suggestions for improvement.

Caution

Make sure that the review process does not become an inhibition to those writing User Documentation for in-house Users.  Stress a cooperative -- not adversarial -- mechanism whose result is quality work.  Do not try to create the perfect User Document. 

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.

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