Technical Writing Basic Conundrum: Can Less Really Be More?

I wrote an article for TechWhirlin December 2011, where I voiced my frustration with the lack of comprehensive documentation available for the current generation of video games. Since I wrote that Christmas wish, I’ve discovered that gamers aren’t the only people suffering with this issue. Poor documentation and the lack of documentation is becoming an epidemic that’s affecting many software developers and hardware manufacturers, not to mention the technical writing profession.

In order to try to prove my point, I did some research to find some sort of standard defining how much product documentation is necessary, and how that documentation should be delivered to the users. Probably not surprising that I didn’t have any luck with formal research. But if you attempt to answer this question using common sense, you can agree with the following seemingly reasonable premise: you should provide as much documentation as is required for a user to use a product to its fullest potential; and that documentation should be delivered in way that is usable and easily accessible to the user.

This seems pretty straightforward, but why is it that so many companies still fail to do this; still  fail to take their documentation seriously; still fail to adequately resource technical writing staff?  Here are a few issues to consider:

 

Development Cost and Perceived Value of Technical Writing

Companies are always looking for ways to save money and do things more efficiently. If you use the ’anyone can write’ and/or ‘no one reads the manual’ approach, it’s easy to justify the reduction of technical writing staff and/or elimination of product documentation completely.

The problem is that saying “anyone can write” is like saying “anyone can sing.” If you’ve watched an episode of American Idol, you know this isn’t true. Similarly, if you’ve recently spent time searching the Internet trying to figure out how to perform a basic task on your new mobile device, you know that some people out there actually do still want to “read the manual.”

 

The Myth of the Completely Intuitive Interface

Product management often assumes that products are so intuitive and usable that users don’t need documentation in order to use them proficiently. After all, everyone knows that good usability eliminates the need for documentation (maybe). However, what’s usable for one person might not be usable for another, even though they are both using the same product — for instance, some people are intuitive enough to pick up any mobile device and use it to it’s fullest potential, while others may require step by step instructions in order to perform basic tasks (e.g., making a phone call or syncing contacts). This is why knowing your audience, with continuing audience analysis and feedback, is so important, and why many in technical writing  and technical communications choose to expand their skills into user experience design and usability testing.

 

Changing Delivery Methods for Technical Communications Content

As recently as the late 1990s, product documentation was, for the most part, still delivered in the form of printed manuals.

As Adobe’s PDF (portable document format) and associated Acrobat Reader gained in popularity and adoption (late 1990s to 2005), PDFs replaced paper as the standard for delivering product documentation. The caveat was that the only way to view PDF documentation was on computer, so delivering documentation this way was only practical for products where it was assumed that users has access to a computer (i.e., software, computer peripherals, or gadgets like mp3 players or digital cameras etc.).

As the number of people with Internet-accessible devices grows larger, paper documentation for consumer products has mostly disappeared in favour of more efficient means of documentation development and delivery:

  • Official corporate documentation – Some companies (e.g., Apple) continue to provide the same comprehensive documentation that they always have; however, it’s delivered online in the form of PDFs, ePubs, knowledge-bases, FAQs or video tutorials… where it can be easily accessed and maintained. Even companies who sell non-technology products are providing online documentation (think IKEA).

Comprehensive documentation, developed and maintained by a technical communications team, is clearly the best case scenario. Such documentation is authentic, correct, up-to-date, standardized, and controlled. Customers spend minimal time what they need and additional support information is always available (i.e., telephone or email support, troubleshooting, and FAQ).

  • Third-party documentation – The disappearance of documentation isn’t a new phenomenon. The minimalist approach to technical writing that has been growing over the years has led to the success of numerous third-party documentation and training providers that provide the comprehensive documentation users want, such as:

- The Dummies, Complete Idiot’s Guide and the Missing Manuals series of books.

- The video game strategy guides provided by Brady Games and Bethesda.

- The online video training provided by Lynda.com and similar web sites.

 Often, these third-parties work in conjunction with the developers or manufacturers in an effort to enhance the user experience. However, a notable issue with third-party documentation is that it has the tendency to be one step behind the release of a product, upgrade, or version. If the documentation is being delivered as a traditional printed book it could take significant amount of time to before it’s available to the users.

  • User-created documentation (community forums) – For products that are directly related to online activity (e.g., software, video games, mobiles devices etc.), online, user-created, forums are becoming increasingly popular. Sometimes these forums are hosted, organized and moderated by the companies who own the products (e.g., Modern Warfare 3 and World of Warcraft), and sometimes they’re not (e.g., Android Forums). What these forums all have in common is that they provide a enormous amount of user-created documentation at a minimal cost; however, the question remains– can these forums provide the same comprehensive documentation that you would expect from traditional technical writing deliverables (user manuals, quick start guides and such)? Not yet.

A significant problem with forums is that even though they may contain the information that you’re looking for, there’s often no usable way to find it. Even forums maintained by corporate technical communications staff, finding relevant information is difficult and time consuming. If the information you’re looking for isn’t there, you’re tasked with investing time to set up an account, post your question, and wait for someone to respond. If you do get any kind of response or find existing information, it often has questionable credibility or is outdated. As they are now, these forums are a good source for supplemental documentation, but come nowhere close to providing usable, comprehensive information.

Now that we’ve considered some of the issues relating to this disappearing documentation epidemic, how do we fix the problem? Technical communications is morphing what and how support is provided to end users, but perhaps not fast enough to ensure optimal user experience.  In the meantime, an argument can be made that users voice their opinions with the way they spend their money. But if you’re like me, you always want the latest and greatest software, game, or device. Poor documentation still isn’t going to stop my from buying it – yet. Yet is the key here, as it represents an opportunity for customer-focused companies to provide great technical communications content when and where it’s needed so customers become fans and repeat buyers.

Ryan Minaker

Ryan Minaker is a professional technical communicator. With over 10 years experience in the field, he has played the role of technical writer, information architect, usability specialist, and content strategist.

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