2012—The Year of the User
Companies spend so much time, money, and effort trying to understand and quantify what their users are saying and thinking about their products. In software development, UI design receives hyperfocus and in hardware or devices, testing and usability receive a good portion of time and budget (not to mention focus) during the development stage.
Figure 1: Occupy Documentation
Much to my dismay, documentation is still perceived as a separate entity from the product. Research and Development budgets for the project rarely include documentation. Instead, it gets tacked on at the end as an afterthought, a necessary evil. I keep rallying against this because I continue to believe that this is a critical product, project, and R&D failure. We may call it documentation, but it’s actually part of the product. If you use the product wrong, it’s a bad product. If you have to spend time looking for instructions, rather than having some integrated knowledge base or easy to find button, the product is not as good as a product that is easy to use.
Thought of differently, it’s not documentation. It’s knowledge. Separating it from product development or from R&D either mentally or in real terms is a critical mistake, and one which has a direct and negative user experience impact.
My friend Doug Levy just co-authored “Ignore the Human Element of Marketing at Your Own Peril”,1 a brilliant piece (which I encourage you to read) in Advertising Age Magazine. Doug points out that brand and advertising are part of the actual product; if you make a brand claim that isn’t part of your product, you damage your reputation and in fact, damage the product. It’s the same for product documentation or product knowledge.
Documentation is not a “nice to have,” a check mark on the list of product deliverables, or an annoying side feature. It is, in many ways, a KEY deliverable. If done right, it is as valuable as your pre-sales efforts. It should help you close the sale, make your product and future versions more saleable, and increase your customer retention rates. It should help a product or company strengthen its brand. Just as fans actually seek out advertising that fits their idea of a brand, they will seek knowledge that fits their idea of the product.
Documentation should not annoy your users or leave them frustrated. Simply put, products with lousy documentation (from the user perspective) will just not make it in a world ruled by social media. Consumer attitudes and purchasing decisions are driven largely by social interaction. If the association is negative, purchases will not ensue. If support forums or public posts about product support and features are made by frustrated users, your future user base is finished and your game is over before you even start your next sales push. If you are depending on user groups to support one another, rather than providing outstanding self-support knowledge or help to your users, everyone knows it. Just look at your own personal software and product choices. You know exactly which software is hard to use and which is easy to use. You know which of your software vendors answers the phone when you have a question and which has no number to call. You know which number you never call because when you press F1, you always get the answer you need. And you know which software you need to ask friends to help you with because there is no hope. That’s part of how you feel about the product you bought—it’s not some separate thing.
Making the leap to a user-oriented documentation push is not that hard and can be done for the same (and in many cases lower) costs as providing “something.” It requires a mind shift and a refocusing of your current efforts, but it is not difficult to investigate, plan, create, or deploy. In reality, within the budget you already planned for 2012, you can afford this shift.
We all know that the ideal product needs no documentation. But those products don’t really yet exist. Even the ubiquitous iPhone comes with documentation. Steve Jobs went through 100 design iterations with the iPhone before choosing the current design. Few companies have the resources to plow through such a process before a product release. His product was not perfect and neither is yours.
2012 is the time for companies to think out of the box, refocus and rethink documentation and technical writing into knowledge and information management that has as much value as a core product component. Satisfying users, engaging users, and bringing usable, fast, and smart content into the picture is where we all need to be this year. The team here at Tech-Tav plans to spend 2012 honoring our product users with better deliverables, more platform independent output formats, and more engaging content.
Yeshiva University, BA, Economics and Political Science): Known as the single-sorceress of Israel, Miriam has been an advocate of smart, cost effective technical documentation solutions for more than 10 years. Miriam’s responsibilities at Tech-Tav include single source project development and management of the client services and business development teams. Miriam is a popular speaker at Israeli TTC, Author-it and Documentation Management Forum events and gives courses on project and documentation management and effective single sourcing means and methods. She has successfully managed more than 600 large-scale technical writing projects during her tenure at Tech-Tav. Miriam was formerly director of operations and staffing specialist for international media, banking, retail organizations; and was distribution and logistics manager for a large American corporation. Miriam immigrated to Israel from Southern California and is still a beach girl at heart. On her days off, you can usually find her making sand castles on the Ashdod beach with her 4 year old twin daughters.