Vesa Purho
Development Manager, Nokia

Traditionally, it has been easy to separate customer documentation from training. Documentation was in the manuals and training was given by trainers. But when documentation is being delivered through Web and e-learning, which is becoming more and more popular, it is less evident, at least from the user’s point-of-view, which is which. I argue here that it should not actually matter.

The only thing that should matter is that we ensure that the users get the information they need, when they need it, and in the format that best suits their needs. Perhaps writing long descriptions in what we think of as documentation is not the best solution. If the purpose of the text is to make the users learn what the product or function is, then perhaps they would be better served if the content were delivered so that the pedagogical aspects are taken into account. If the documentation is delivered through the Web, the solution does not have to be a separate training program. The training and documentation can be combined, or at least quite seamlessly integrated, so that the users don’t have to know when to access training material and when to access documentation. Their needs are anticipated and the correct solution is offered to them when they need it.

All of this naturally requires careful analysis on the users and their tasks to understand what information they need, when they need it, and why they need the information. Do they need information to learn or do they need it to perform tasks? If they need the information to learn, then that should indicate that plain text with graphics might not be the best solution. Naturally, there are different learning styles. Some people are comfortable with just reading and learning, but others require a more visual and interactive solution to get them to actually learn and remember. On the other hand, if the information is needed simply to perform a task without the desire to learn anything that goes beyond the basic steps, then a step-by-step procedure is probably the best solution.

Integrating the presentation of procedures and learning opportunities requires planning for documentation and training as a single solution from the users point-of-view. This planning may be easier if the documentation and training staff belong to the same organisation and more challenging if they do not, especially if training is considered to be a profit center but documentation is not. In that case, you need to agree on what information can be charged to the customers and what information is given for free, since documentation is typically included in the price of the product. Unfortunately, the divisions between documentation and training are all about internal costs and resource allocations, plus office politics, none of which should be the user’s concern. If we keep in mind what is best for the user and the customer, we hope a solution can be found that will increase customer satisfaction.

Delivering documentation and training through the Web, or in some other online medium, gives us possibilities that were not there when documentation was all on paper and training was done in a classroom. We should take advantage of these possibilities, not just because they exist, but because we can see a clear customer benefit in using them.

This article is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion or practice of Nokia.