Talk to Me – I am the User
How have you been? I am the quintessential end user of your documentation. A little birdie told me that you've been writing for me ever since you entered this profession. Methinks that we've never got a chance to meet each other - up close and personal, so I decided to set up this rendezvous with you today.
There is something I must tell you upfront, lest you continue to commit the same old mistakes again. I am the intended recipient of your work...if I do not understand or like what you convey, I tend to feel lost, grumpy, confused, and sometimes angry.
So before I proceed, I would like you to answer these two questions for me:
- What makes you think I would be interested to read everything from you?
- Are you completely sure you know me well?
Assumptions can be pretty dangerous
Your primary task, as I see it, is to use the principles of learning theory* and communication, to organize content and present it in a way that is understandable, succinct, clear, readable, and usable. Please don't assume that I would read everything you write by default. You have to use the right medium (print, online, audio, video, verbal, and so on) to convey the point; but remember that technology is just the medium...not the message.
Time has different connotations for different people
The one thing I can never promise you is my time. Don't expect me to search that dreaded 1000-odd-page manual, looking for every bit of relevant information. I would never do that. However, it'll be nice if you can present information in chunks (and complement it with relevant headings, and sub-headings), so that I know exactly where to land. Group related items together, and place them in close proximity. Let the information come as one cohesive unit rather than as disparate chunks. This is also known as structured authoring (or chunking.) As a thumb rule, structure the content in such a way that I can quickly find the information. Weed out redundant material that I am not ready to buy, or information that can mislead. I never asked for it, in the first place. An overdose of information is the last thing on my mind. Give me relevant information that I can easily digest, and I am a happy camper.
Unique Selling Proposition: Focus on Value
You need to buy and sell those ideas to me. That's the hallmark of a good writer. And talking of ideas, what apparent value are you providing in your document? Please don't document tasks that are quite apparent from the application (menus, toolbars, simple controls, and so on.) Moreover, I tend to forget 60 to 80% of what I read by the next day. So, please don't throw things at me, because it's irritating, time-consuming, and taxing.
So long as you feed me with relevant information, I promise not to whine at all. I also noticed that sometimes you tend to focus more on the packaging and less on the content. Ah, and those glaring spelling errors...come on, you can do better than that. My point is that if you really want to see me happy, you must continue to pamper me with useful information. Time is a big issue for me; if I need something real fast, please don't make me wait. I hate waiting!
Don't reinvent the wheel
Focus on the content and try not to digress too much. Use simple, plain English without jargons. Ensure that relevant information is not lost somewhere in between. Make information searchable by using indexes, table of contents, headings and sub-headings, hyperlinks, and so on. If possible, describe business scenarios and generic overviews in the beginning of your document. Provide me with ways to navigate fast...lure me so I may stay longer with you.
Guess that's all I have time for! I hope the next time I get something from you; it doesn't make me think that much. A better user experience is all I'm looking for!!!
* For more information on learning theories, refer to <http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-learn.htm>