A robot scans an old pile of books.

Documentation for technology: your user’s perspective

I am unusual in this world because I like to make documentation. For me, it is a practice in thinking like a user and finding ways to offer them what they need when they need it.

Also, as content creation tasks go, documentation is very testable. We put new users in front of the device, give them the docs, and ask them to perform a task. I love a clear proof of success like that. Most people don’t like to make documentation. They don’t like to think about it. I was recently talking to a design lead for a new company getting ready to launch their first product. They had designed their product box and included a spot to put a paper documentation booklet. They had not, however, actually started writing the booklet.

Documentation used to be a necessary evil. New software, hardware, or products of any sort would have documentation. It might be awful documentation, but it was definitely documentation. If they were a large company, they could afford to create thorough, thoughtful instructions and reference. Other companies at least had a getting started guide and a feature reference.

Then, one company created an excuse for everyone who hated that process. Thanks, Apple.

The user experience myth

In the modern era of Apple, the ideal for devices is that they are so easy to use you don’t need documentation. That is a great idea. I love how that puts the expectation on designers to make items that fall to hand and offer up their features.

Because of this innovation by a model company, many companies skip documentation. There are two major ways that this is a mistake:

  • Apple creates these products by spending millions of dollars, thousands of talented-person-hours, and years of R&D built around user testing. Most companies can’t manage that effort, particularly for a B2B SaaS web app.
  • Apple actually does make great documentation for every product and feature.

I would be totally flattered if Tim Cook read this article of mine, but chances are most people who are checking out this blog are NOT the CEO of Apple. Lion’s Way works with companies that are innovators, disruptors working to change people’s thinking about a business process or user experience. I fervently believe that they need documentation to be successful. If they don’t make it, they may not even know what they are missing.

The cost of skipping documentation

If you are not creating documentation, you are costing your company opportunity.

Docs = sales. Many purchasers, particularly ones of a technical bent, want to skip the marketing jargon and look at the technical documentation before they decide to buy. As a result, I believe that earnest marketers need to know and care about the quality of their product docs.

Docs = retention. Clients who can’t get the app to do what they want will stop using the app. With freemium models, this means they don’t become paying customers. With all apps, this means clients fade away.

Docs = lower costs for support. Lion’s Way often talk with organizations who, as they grow, realize that they are paying over and over for tech support to answer the same questions. As they start getting popular, this cost starts looking prohibitive. Its also not fun for the employees or the customers. Devising self-serve solutions (we like the way Zendesk Operations among others implement just-in-time documentation) reduces costs and makes scaling easier.

People should be making documentation. It should not always be a straightforward knowledge base. It can be in-context. It can be visual. It can be fun to use. It can take advantage of what you know about your users and reach them where they are. Documentation can delight!

The joy of documentation

That cuts to the point of what I believe is a major objection to creating documentation; in the midst of exciting development and innovation, docs sound like a boring task. As I said at the outset, I don’t think documentation is boring at all. Docs are so meaningful and so significant to a user’s experience — and business success. If you are saving some money on documentation, what is it costing you?

Joel Barker is Lion’s Way founder and creative director. Lion’s Way creates the content (ebooks, case studies, web copy, videos, documentation) that feeds technology and business to business marketing, sales, and client communication. If you want to talk content, reach out!

Main image Creative Commons by Alexandre Dulaunoy.