Nobody’s reading your technical documentation? So make it better!

Personne ne lit votre documentation? Faites-en de la meilleure.

If you’re one to believe technical documentation goes unread, you may well end up wondering what the point of investing time and money in technical documentation is. But what if that’s actually not the right question?

Technical documentation isn’t literature

As Mark Baker points out in Users’ Advocate: Nobody Reads Documentation, “People read novels. They don’t read documentation.” And this observation doesn’t just go for technical documentation. Be it store catalogues, recipe books and even the telephone directories of days past, many texts are never read from start to finish. So what’s our point here? While these documents aren’t read, they are consulted frequently, and that’s exactly why we have to keep producing them to the very best of our ability.

Not convinced? You think to yourself “but I never refer to technical documentation”? Right, but isn’t your car owner’s manual on hand if some strange light starts blinking?

Consulting technical documentation is all about trust

You may still feel like technical documentation is pointless. That’s totally normal if your customer service department is flooded with questions about your products, especially if their answers are right there in your documentation.

As we noted in our article Having a Hard Time Retaining Customers? Think Technical Documentation, 81% of consumers prefer to find their own solution before calling customer service. So let’s put it this way: If your customers don’t turn to your technical documentation right off, something is definitely wrong.

What if the problem is trust, actually? If customers’ first instinct is to call your customer service department, maybe it’s because they lack the confidence your documentation will provide them with the answer faster than by calling!

Sheila Fahey at Cherryleaf, quoted by Tom Johnson in his article If No One Reads the Manual, That’s Okay, offers this summary: “When things go wrong and it matters to the user, they will seek assistance. They will look for the easiest way to get to the information they need to do the task. If this is the manual, then they will use it.”

So the long and the short of it? Make sure your documentation is the easiest and fastest way for your customers to get the information they need.

Hints for better technical documentation

  • Documentation should be accessible: Does your product come with an installation and user’s guide? Great! But make sure that these documents are also available online. If your customers have to track down a paper copy for a product they bought 10 years ago, they’re going to call your customer service department, for sure. And when putting your documentation online, make sure your customers can find it easily on the web.
  • Information should be easy to find: Make the structure of your documentation consistent so your customers can instinctively find what they’re looking for. If your technical documentation is available online, be sure to include a high-performance search tool, since that’s probably how people will begin their search when visiting your site. Make things easier for them by ensuring that your documentation terminology matches the search terms they’re most likely to use. This is also the perfect time to make use of the data collected by your site’s analytical tools to determine which search terms crop up most often.
  • Information should be divided into subjects: Since few people are going to read your documentation from beginning to end, make sure that when they find what they’re looking for, they don’t have to search too much longer for their answers. Information on a given topic should be grouped, even if you have to include links to other relevant subjects.
  • Information should be easy to understand: If customers find what they’re looking for but can’t understand it, they won’t be any better off. This means that your documentation should be written in a user-friendly style. Use diagrams, images, videos, tables, procedures and other straightforward ways of presenting information so customers can find what they need quickly and determine what they have to do instantly.
  • Documentation should be a work in progress: Making sure your technical documentation is well structured, with information that is easy to find, understand and use is a great start—but it’s only the beginning! Treat your documentation like a work in progress, rather than as a one-up project. Once your initial documentation is complete, you’ll have to update and improve it regularly to better meet your customers’ needs. What’s the best way forward? Put tools in place to analyze how customers use your documentation, what they look for, which webpages they visit, and so on. Use data from your customer service department, since the questions your reps typically handle will provide useful clues to what’s lacking in your documentation.

Just like in all areas of operations, you have to size up your technical documentation’s issues before improvements can be made. What’s more, you’ll quickly realize how much happier your documentation users are when you better understand their needs. And who knows? You might even find out about how they use your products and identify a few new features you could develop!