One of the benefits of living in the Information Age is that we can quickly and easily research anything we want to buy. Beyond the basics of price, availability, and customer reviews, we can learn about the manufacturer’s customer support options, including the product documentation. Is the documentation easy to find? Is it easy to read? Does it answer realistic questions, or is it a 2-page quick reference that hasn’t been updated in years?
I recently decided to purchase video editing software based on a simple question: how long will it take me to learn to use this product? The list of features between products was pretty similar, and I had narrowed the list to products that would work with my computer. I need to create simple how-to videos, but I can’t spend weeks climbing a steep learning curve. This is when I turned to the product documentation, letting the documentation (and videos, of course!) show me what it’s like to use their product, and answering the basic question that all documentation needs to address: am I going to have a good experience with this product? The company that answered that question in the most complete, reassuring way eventually got my business.
More and more people are doing extensive research before they buy. A positive user experience can turn a sales prospect into a user, and a user into an advocate. The documentation we write is a critical part of that user experience. The words, pictures, and videos we create are as much a part of the product as the code or components used to build it.
The traditional view of technical content says the documentation introduces our customers to the product, then answers the questions they have while using it. The docs let our customers get their work done, and then shows them how to do more by teaching new ways of using the product. Most of us, and the organizations we work for, recognize that the traditional view doesn’t really address how customers buy and use products in the digital, IoT age. It’s a continuous process—a lifecycle—that focuses on long-term value in the customer relationship.
The user experience doesn’t start and end at the user interface. Whether they’re responsible for researching and purchasing products on behalf of a company, or a consumer buying for an individual household, the customer’s experience with your product starts with the beginning of the sales cycle. Your company’s marketing and sales offerings lay the foundation for the first phases of the sales cycle, and if they decide to purchase, the next steps will be training, support, and then your product documentation. But in fact, today’s business buyers and end consumers research it all before they buy.
The user experience is greater than the sum of those parts: your customers judge your product on the entire customer journey. This means that “traditional” documentation needs to fit seamlessly into the customer-facing content produced by your company: marketing material, sales brochures, training programs, and the product’s user interface. We rarely know at which point in their journey a buyer will want to access technical content, so we can’t presume that our docs will only be read after the purchase.
The documentation also fulfills aspects of marketing and customer support: our documentation has to sell the user on features and functionality, showing them what our products are capable of, and reinforce in them that the decision to buy our product was the right one. We answer their questions, tell them about new features, and help them do their jobs faster and better than they would if they weren’t using our awesome products.
So our documentation needs to answer the users’ questions, and lead them to new ones. It answers their basic “how do I?” questions, then shows them what else they can do to get them to move beyond the basic functionality. This not only minimizes frustration, but also teaches them how to get more value from our products.
This leads from what the user needs now, which improves their immediate experience, to what improves their long-term, overall experience. So our value to our companies goes beyond creating documentation to understanding what to provide to the users, and when. We have a role to play in developing the content that supports the entire user experience.
We need to understand our users and provide content directed at multiple levels of expertise, from new users to experienced veterans. Even then, answering the users’ questions is a good start, but we need to understand how they use our product and how they want to receive help. This includes not only what they need, but how they need it delivered. Our role is to provide comprehensive answers in the form that they want, from short answers to longer tutorials, from tooltips to videos. In other words, we need to do what the developers and designers do—translate requirements into use cases, and create personas that describe who those users are.
Of course, our users’ needs will change as they gain experience. We can build content that helps them through the introductory onboarding and builds their expertise (and comfort), and eventually leads them into advanced usage scenarios. All while recognizing that some of this content will be accessed while those users are still prospects.
It’s not only the form that’s important, but the format. Will our users be online? We can provide them with online help and a more extensive knowledge base with tutorials. If our users won’t always be online while using our products, they’ll need some form of offline format, such as ebook or PDF.
This is how we, as technical writers, create an integral part of the user experience. Collaborating with the other teams that create customer-facing content can make sure that our documentation fits our company’s style and tone, creating a unified customer experience.
When your documentation is part of a consistent user experience, when all of the teams are focused on the same message and speaking with the same voice, you present a strong, unified company that reassures your users rather than confusing or alienating them.
In addition to unified voice and message, other important factors are involved in creating a consistent, compelling user experience. This includes simple things like using the same color scheme and logos, and making sure everyone uses similar terminology and definitions. Videos that use the same opening screens, corporate branding, and even similar music help your users easily identify your company’s instructional content and associate it with your brand. All elements considered part of branding’s domain, traditionally controlled by marketing.
This need for a consistent user experience also includes the data you use in tutorials, videos, and screenshots. For example, you can coordinate with your training department to use the same demo data. Your customers will feel more comfortable when what they saw during training matches what they see when they read the documentation. This unified user experience reinforces what they have already learned, smoothing their transition from new users to power users.
This is your users’ journey, and the technical content we create plays multiple roles throughout this journey. Your documentation serves an introduction, when the reader is deciding whether to purchase your company’s product. Then it stays with them as they gain knowledge and become experienced users, answering their questions and helping them learn to work faster and smarter.
Attention to detail, consistent messaging, voice and tone let your customers know that your company works together as a team. Your customers don’t care about your company’s org chart. Impermeable silos result in an inconsistent, unfocused user experience. A lack of focus in one area can make your users question whether you’ve cut corners in other areas of your product.
The documentation says as much about your company as it does about the products it describes. Clear, well-organized documentation provides a great experience for your users that compliments and enhances the experience provided by the product itself, your support team, and every other piece of content created by your company.