Integrating Documentation with an Existing User Experience

August 20, 2018

Is it possible to integrate documentation into an existing user experience? Yes, this is certainly possible. I would even go so far as to state that creating such an integrated user experience is a must for every vendor trying to create greater customer loyalty.

I am not referring to the kind of loyalty that results from loyalty schemes that give a customer a sense of belonging—for example, when checking into a hotel where the customer stays frequently. Although such schemes undoubtedly do add to the customer’s satisfaction when using a product or service. I’m really thinking of something much more basic—something that seems to be terra incognita for most companies.

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Why is the acronym RTFM (Read the F***ing Manual) so popular in the English language? Mainly because users all too often blame themselves for any problems they encounter when using a product or service for the very first time. Plus, they think they can fix the problems.

For example, consider a new printer that must go through some kind of initialization procedure. What should the user do if the LEDs signifying that this initialization is in progress simply refuse to blink? Should he start anew? Or should he read the printer’s manual? Probably, he’ll simply start over.

There is another reason why the acronym RTFM is so popular. Going through a manual seems to be such a hassle that probably seven out of ten customers won’t even consider reading it. They’ll simply restart the printer or computer.

Adding Documentation to a Product or Service

When users are looking for information about how to solve a problem, they often don’t consider reading a product manual favorably. The user’s perception may be: You have to go through so many pages just to find some faulty information or information that is of no use at all. Or you might have to watch a complete instructional video that lasts ten minutes—without knowing whether it will address your specific question. Such problems or questions might be very basic: “Can I print on somewhat thicker paper—or might that affect my printer’s lifespan?”

If the user’s perception is that manuals are full of hard-to-find information—even though all of this information might indeed be present in a cute little booklet—vendors should start wondering how to solve this problem. The acronym RTFM has everything to do with user experience—or, to be more precise, the lack thereof. User documentation should become part and parcel of every new product or service experience.

Companies do not need to redesign their product or realign their service. They simply need to add the information the user requires to the user experience to which their customers are accustomed. Instead of viewing user documentation as ancillary to their product, they should consider it to be part of the product itself.

Integrating User Documentation Requires Minimal Resources

From a vendor’s point of view, this new, more helpful user experience would not come cheap. While creating separate user documentation adds costs, every vendor already knows what their products and services are about, so integrating documentation is more a matter of presentation than content development.

How would users react to documentation with the following characteristics?

  • content that uses at least two colors to differentiate between section headings and plain text, for example
  • content that contains as many clear drawings as possible instead of long sentences comprising 20 words or more
  • labels that make it easy for the user to find any task in a table of contents—for example, “Printing on Plain Paper” or “Printing on Photo Paper”
  • content with the right level of detail so no one feels left behind or as if you’re speaking to him as a child
  • content whose layout is attractive and uses sufficient whitespace to make finding information much easier

Even the fact that user documentation might become much more graphically based than linguistically oriented need not cost that much more. There are excellent tools on the market that let you extract new illustrations from existing CAD drawings. What’s more, every illustration brings down translation costs considerably.

Taking a New Approach to Deliver a Usable User Experience

While this might be a new approach to creating a user experience, what does this new user experience look like? Does such an approach really work? Evidence shows that it does. From my experience as a technical writer, users turn to documentation much more frequently if it presents itself effectively. If user documentation had the same buzz around it as the product itself, it would generate its own moment of excitement when a user unpacked the product.

After becoming the CEO of a company of technical writers in The Netherlands, I realized that this moment of excitement might very well be the first experience a user has with a product. I think this would be a good thing. Providing user documentation increases the usability of a product and, thus, improves its overall user experience.

Of course, there still are a lot of unknowns. For example, does delivering user documentation as part of a product experience lead to a reduction in support costs? Generally speaking, it is difficult to calculate how much money this might save your organization. However, it is likely that help-desk costs might drop between 40 and 60%, just as a result of improving the user documentation. This speaks to the effectiveness of this new, integrated user experience.

Ask yourself this question: how far should this go? Setting up a new user experience is one thing. But should you introduce a persona that guides the user through the user documentation? There are examples of a technician holding correctly colored cables in his hand when installing a modem or router, introducing himself as a sympathetic blue-collar worker who is perhaps there to help a white-collar worker. It is not really clear whether such personas would enhance the user experience. What is absolutely clear, though, is that using documentation should not itself require user documentation.

Using Multimedia Is Not the Only Answer

How important is leveraging a multimedia environment when you’re trying to create a new user experience by integrating user documentation? It is very important because using multimedia such as instructional videos—with or without augmented reality—adds to the mix that makes it possible to create a new, more helpful user experience. For example, instructional videos are effective for communicating installation procedures for professional equipment such as pumps and generators. However, they’re less effective for most consumer products. For example, an instructional video on a CD-ROM would require using an additional device, so a little booklet or quick reference guide might provide a better user experience.

Ideally, you should offer users both a printed and a digital version of all documentation. A printed table of contents is one thing, a digital search engine yet another. Users can search PDFs easily using keywords. Users who are comfortable typing keywords should be able to get the information they need by doing so. Supplying a PDF on a CD-ROM or via the Internet could actually prolong the new user experience by providing content that would prove useful for a long time. 

CEO at Manualise

Delft, The Netherlands

Tom van de WielAfter obtaining his Master’s degree in industrial design at Delft University, Tom founded Manualise with a fellow student in 2007. As the name Manualise suggests, the Dutch firm is in the business of producing product manuals, including instructional videos—with or without augmented reality. Manualise is located in the Dutch high-tech city of Delft—which is well known the world over for the development of very successful solar cars and the Milkmaid, a painting by its 17th-century inhabitant Johannes Vermeer. Manualise specializes in both universal graphics and multilingual texts. Among its customers are Electrolux, Leitz, Grundig, AEG, Schneider, Skil, and AKAI.  Read More

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