Your Documentation Belongs in a Museum!

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Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.

If you perceived the title of this article as a critique of your work, what would you think? At first blush, you might be insulted. After all, what do we put in museums but relics of the past—artifacts that show how things used to be? You might interpret the title to imply that your content is out-of-date or out-of-touch with current trends. Although museums also house items of great worth that the masses clamor to see, very few would interpret the title in a more complimentary light.

At best, you might find the phrase confusing. It’s been said that despite the advances in what we document, approaches to documentation haven’t changed much in the past 30 years. Sure, we have new technologies that make production easier, but our strategies are stagnant. Documentation we produce today might look nicer and be far easier to publish, but it frequently reads the same as content created in the 70s. So why put it in a museum? It is neither a testament to how things were nor items of high value, and some might say not even something that deserves a second glance.

But a closer analysis of the title can reveal a sincere compliment. Indeed, such a critique shows something we should strive for. As the wealth of information continues to grow, some have suggested that the role of technical communicator should evolve into that of “information curator”—we become less the creators of information and more its managers. Our job should be to help users navigate the readily available masses of content to find the nuggets of relevant information they need. Like museum curators, we organize and present information in an appealing way where everyone can come away with something of interest.

Saying that our documentation belongs in a museum, then, might indicate that it is keeping up with the times. It is keenly tuned on what will appeal to the audience, easily navigable, and organized into small, focused pieces of information that enable users to consume as much or as little as they want and still leave with a sense of satisfaction. In short, we can learn a lot about how to create effective documentation from studying a museum.

Support Multiple Access Methods

Visitors to a museum approach exhibits in a variety of ways. Some know exactly what they want to see and march with purpose directly to the item. Others meander through all the surrounding exhibits, content to navigate the museum and individual exhibits in the way the designer intended. Some people jump from one case to another based on the accessibility of the case (for example, one that doesn’t have a dozen people currently in front of it) or its visual appeal. Others don’t seem to have any rhyme or reason for their movements.

With these approaches in mind, curators provide a variety of aids to assist visitors in navigating through the exhibits, including printed handouts, detailed directories and floor plans throughout the museum (complete with a handy “you are here” marker), and helpful volunteers wandering the halls and exhibits to provide information. For special or popular exhibits and pieces, additional signage, arrows, and even footprints on the floor, guide the guest to the exhibit (see Figure 1).


It’s interesting to note that museums recognize that exhibits will be accessed randomly. They feel no need to have the most important works right by the front door to ensure that everyone sees them. Instead, they simply ensure that visitors can find their way to those works with minimal effort. Unable to get our designs out of a book-based paradigm, we want to put the most important topics at the “beginning.” But in topic-based structures, as in a museum, there is no beginning. Instead, we must provide access from any entry point.

To do so, we must provide a variety of navigation and search aids to help users find the information they are looking for. These should include a detailed table of contents, links to related topics, and a faceted-search engine. Keep in mind that we cannot depend on customers to know how we categorized information or the specific terms we chose to use in the product and documentation; instead, we need to understand how they classify content and what vocabulary they use in their searches. In addition, like the “you are here” dots, we must provide breadcrumbs showing the context of the topic and providing an easy way to go back to a previous decision point.

Guide, Even While Allowing for Deviation

Although museums allow for random access, inherent in their design is still a recommended path through the information (see Figure 2). Related exhibits are collected into a single gallery and related items into individual cases. Within the gallery, curators place the exhibits and cases in a recommended order that they believe will enhance the visitor’s experience if followed.


Just because we are creating topic-based content rather than traditional books does not mean that we should simply assign a lot of metadata to each topic and give users access to an unorganized collection of topics. We are not denying that specific topics are related to each other, just acknowledging that they can be accessed in any order. Although we must allow the random access, we should also give the users some clues as to how we believe the information is best used. In books, we organize into chapters; online, we might provide landing pages grouped by the audience who might need the information, the product to which the information applies, or a variety of other organizational schemes. The order in which content appears on these landing pages might suggest a path through the information, as well as related links pointing where to go next.

A crucial aspect of such organization, however, is an understanding of how users will classify the information. The Hope Diamond is logically found in the Geology, Gems, and Minerals hall in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It seems reasonable to expect that visitors would go there, rather than the Butterflies and Plants hall, for example. On the other hand, the Mona Lisa is found with the Italian and Spanish Paintings in the Louvre. An uninformed visitor might have problems locating it without further guidance (see Figure 3). If our organizational structure is not clear to all users, we need to take extra effort to ensure users can still find what they need.


Provide Standalone Information

Although curators suggest a path through their information, most placards are not written with the expectation that content has been read in a particular order. Each nugget of information stands alone, allowing visitors to deviate from the recommended flow without becoming confused. Crucial information might even be repeated between placards to ensure that visitors have the information if they didn’t read the previous one (see Figure 4).


The world of the Cretaceous Period (65.5–146 million years ago) brought significant changes to life and to Earth itself. Before this time period, during the Jurassic, animal life on land was dominated by dinosaurs. Some of the dominant plants included ferns, cycads, seed ferns, ginkgos, and conifers. In the seas, marine reptiles (ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs), sharks, and ammonites were common. Most of these life forms still dominated the Cretaceous world, although new types of dinosaurs and plants also appeared. All of Earth’s landmasses had been clumped together into one huge supercontinent called Pangea, but this had begun to break apart during the Triassic, and seaways had begun to invade Pangea during the Jurassic. By the Cretaceous this process was well under way, making Earth’s climate more equable and greatly affecting both plants and animals.

Topic-based content requires a similar mindset. In the past, we provided transitions between sections and, in the interest of saving paper, we avoided repetition between sections at all costs. Now we must recognize that every topic is Topic One; it’s possible that a user will enter our documentation by viewing any topic in the entire system. As a result, the topic cannot rely on information users should have gained from another topic, but must stand on its own.

Recognize that everyone doesn’t want the same level of information

Once visitors find the exhibit hall or gallery that interests them, they again show a variety of approaches to digesting the information presented. People read the content that interests them, while skimming or ignoring the remaining information. Some look at the artifacts but do not read any of the placards; others read the overviews but skim the detailed signs; a few immerse themselves and read every single tag on every single item; and some even pay extra to get an audio tour or guidebook that provides more information.

Content within the exhibits is written accordingly. Content of interest to the most visitors is in larger print, viewable from farther away than the detailed parts of the exhibit, which are frequently on very small information cards that require you to be right next to the case to read (see Figure 5).


Too often in documentation, we provide everything anyone could ever want to know about a subject, rationalizing that someone, somewhere, might need or want that information. We focus on the need of the few, rather than the needs of the many, thereby forcing everyone to sift through the same information. But we need to reverse that approach, so that the content that appeals to the majority is separate from information of interest to only a small subset of our audience. We need to allow users to “opt-in” to additional information, drilling deeper into information as it interests them, rather than hiding what they are looking for in a plethora of other stuff. In a museum, sometimes all a visitor wants to know is what he or she is looking at; in our documentation, sometimes all our users want to know is how to complete a task. Make that information prominent, easy to find, and unobstructed by other content.

Give the Main Attraction a Space of Its Own

Although all the objects in a museum have historical or artistic significance, it cannot be denied that some are more interesting to a greater number of people. You are unlikely to go to the Louvre without seeing the Mona Lisa or the Accademia Gallery without viewing Michelangelo’s David. Museum curators are well aware of the draw of their artifacts. They know what visitors are most interested in, and they design their floor plans to showcase these items and make them most accessible. High-interest items get their own cases or sometimes even their own rooms so that nothing distracts from them (see Figure 6). They are placed so that as many visitors as possible can be accommodated with a good view.


Perhaps one of the most difficult things to accept in technical writing is that all information is not created equal. Certain content is sought after by more people than other content, for example, instructions for completing a difficult task or troubleshooting information for common problems. We need to recognize what people want to see most and make sure all roads point to it. Instead of burying this information in the midst of other related content, we need to pull it out, give it its own space, and make that space easily accessible.

Add Interactive and Multimedia content to Attract Attention

The best learning experiences include hands-on practice with the concept being taught. Museum curators have learned to apply this principle to their exhibits, transforming the once boring, child-unfriendly, hands-off viewing strategy into interactive, experiential learning. The most popular exhibits are those that allow visitors to experience them with all the senses. People of all ages love to touch, climb on, interact with, and control the exhibits (see Figure 7). But it’s important to recognize that not all exhibits are interactive and that interactivity runs the gamut from complex simulations and computer touch screens to simple sliding panels and moving pieces.


Want to make your information more inviting and encourage people to access it? Add interactive and multimedia content. But keep in mind that just as every exhibit does not have bells and whistles, you don’t need to make your entire presentation a multimedia extravaganza. Museum visitors are perfectly happy with a mixture of fixed displays and interactive exhibits. Why, then, do we think we must wait to add interactive and multimedia content until all our topics have such content? Instead, we should enhance the content as we have time and money. Further, not all content is conducive to interactivity. There are significantly fewer interactive exhibits in art museums compared to natural history museums, which in turn have fewer than technology museums. We need to choose wisely what type of content is best enhanced by audio, video, and interactive content.

Periodically Refurbish

It’s inevitable when you visit a museum you’ll eventually encounter an empty space in an exhibit with some type of sign indicating that the item, or even the entire case, is undergoing regular maintenance or refurbishment. Items are removed, cleaned up, and given a facelift. Some are even entirely replaced with similar or more interesting pieces (see Figure 8).


How often do we ignore our existing content, allowing it to grow dusty and stale? Unless a change in the product occurs, content typically remains the same for years. Yet, our users don’t stay the same; their experience and their needs change. For example, for how many years did users know how to use a mouse before that content was finally eradicated from all software user manuals? We need to constantly revisit our content for refurbishment. Sometimes all that’s required is a minor update, but we need to be prepared to completely overhaul topics to keep them attractive to users for years to come.

Bring in Special, Temporary Exhibits

Once visitors have been to a museum and seen all the exhibits, what brings them back again? The opportunity to see something new. In addition to keeping content fresh through refurbishment, museum curators always try to expand their collections or bring in travelling exhibits. Because only a small portion of artifacts at larger museums are actually on display at any one time, some exhibits are rotated to entice people to return (see Figure 9).


Getting users to return to our content is not typically a goal of our organizations. We’re happy if they simply come to it once and find the information they need. We accept that documentation is the last place a user turns after trial and error, asking friends and co-workers, or searching the internet for solutions. Do users really want to spend all this time? Do they want to navigate all the hits in Google to find relevant information? No—they only do so because experience tells them our information won’t help. If they could find fresh, relevant content in one location, they may go there first. So what would it take to entice users to come to us first? We need to establish that our content development doesn’t stop once the product is released with the bare minimum information about how to use it. We need to learn how users apply our product or want to apply it and then release white papers on new topics of interest. We need to pay attention to the issues that users call our help desk about or post on support sites and then update content to address those issues. We need to research what others post about our product on YouTube or other sites and add links from our content to postings that are accurate and valuable. In short, we need to move from an occasional-access product focus to a multi-access service focus—information curation.

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