If you type in the keywords “Nobody reads a User’s Manual” in Google , you will get a number of links to some really interesting posts from experienced technical communicators lamenting about the fact that our customers prefer to keep User’s Manuals in their original bubble wrap, untouched and unread. N.E.R.T.F.M is quite an accepted scenario. For those who were as unaware as I was, it stands for Nobody Ever Reads The F$%^ing Manual. I first encountered the term in Mr. Gifford’s blog. If we cannot imagine one of our customers to curl up in an armchair next to a blazing fire with a cup of cocoa and the latest User Manual, then, maybe it is time to challenge the status quo and ponder on how to effectively feed support information to our customer-in-distress in a friendly and unobtrusive way.
Is this the Death Knell for the User’s Manual (And Technical Communicators)?
The User’s Manual is dead in its traditional form. On a more positive note, the success of the internet is proof enough that people still need information. Technical communicators are the creators of support information. And what do customers want to read? This is a million-dollar question that every product company wants to know. Again, going back to what is popular on the internet, there are certain assumptions that we can make:
- Information must be easily available
- Information must be highly searchable
- Information must be concise
- Demos and videos are popular
- Products must be intuitive (Look at the Google homepage)
What does this mean?
This means information is still important and we as technical writers still need to document product support. However, instead of User Manuals, we need to design our information to have all of the characteristics that I listed out above.
How do we Re-invent Technical Documentation?
For any product, we need to ask ourselves the question: What are the top support information a customer might need for this product?
If I had a hardware product, I might have the following questions:
- How can I set up the product for first-use?
- How can I upgrade the product?
- What are the technical specifications of my product?
- How do I (perform a task)?
- My product does not (perform a task). What do I do?
I know what you are thinking. All of these questions have answers in the User’s Manual. Yes, and that is why I mentioned that the User’s Manual is dead for customers but not for technical writers. All we need to do is break the User’s Manual into a series of knowledge-bases, decision-trees, videos, etc, and make these easily available in our product support website.
- When a customer buys our product, instead of the User’s Manual, give the customer a video, a one-page brochure, or a knowledge-base link that describes how to set up the product in the shortest possible time. You will save on paper and earn a lot of brownie points.
- Use your release notes information to author short articles on informing the customer on what bugs are fixed and what bugs have a workaround.
- Extract the technical specifications from your User’s Manual and utilize it to sell upgrade options in the Sales field.
- Make your marketing people use the information in the Overview section to inform customers on why the product is so good that the customer needs to buy it.
- Plug in the task-oriented information in your software UI to help the customer in installing the product and running tasks.
If nobody was reading anything, the internet would have been dead a long time ago. This is the dawn of short, actionable, internet-searchable information, and we need to regroup and re-engineer our means of delivering technical support information in that format.