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Does anyone read the documentation?

by Employee on ‎10-31-2011 11:07 AM

It’s the arrow through the heart for every technical writer. Spend weeks, maybe months, immersed in creating documentation for a release, then hear all that hard work dismissed because “no one reads the documentation”.


So is it true?  The reality is that while there may be the occasional person who does read as much of the documentation as possible, most only look for User Assistance when they have an immediate (and usually urgent) need. 


Perfect.  Isn’t that what it’s all about?  Deliver the best quality content to the user as fast as possible?  Therein lies the challenge for delivering content.  Users in a hurry don’t have time to read the entire documentation set.  Heck, writing User Assistance materials is the way I earn my living but I rarely have the luxury of reading every word of the documentation before I have to get up and running with a newly-purchased software program. So what’s the best, most efficient way to get information to users?

  • Video?  Many love it, others don’t want to sit through 5 minutes of content to get to the bit they need. 
  • Forums?  Some love the collaborative element, and the feedback from others who have been in the same situation.  For others, it’s time-consuming and there’s an element of risk in basing a business action on the empirical experience of others.
  • Help systems?  Some love the context-sensitivity and finding nuggets by using the search and the index features. Others want more “why" and dislike the way search returns multiple pages of possible topics.
  • PDF files?  For some, the ability to print out, to search, to look at the index are all great things. For others, it’s ‘old school’ and they lack confidence in the content because, to quote Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message."

So maybe we can’t focus on one delivery method as the way to please all users all the time.  But regardless of how we decide to deliver content, there’s one thing those of us who create User Assistance materials must keep top of mind: users don’t have time to waste. Answers should be clear, concise, accurate, easy to find, and speak as directly to a person’s specific need as possible. 


And that's all it takes!

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