Great Technical Writing: Has Anyone Ever Used Your Product?

From these “test users” get solutions to problems, tips and knowledge that would help your real-life Users. Put that information in your User Documentation, and on your product support Website.

Three More Ways That Your User Documentation Fails Your Reader/User:

1. Ignores the product’s failings (warts), and how to overcome themEvery product has “warts.” Warts are the failings of your product. A wart might be something that the current version of the product cannot easily do, but needs to be done. Here are some examples of product warts. Some of the warts can only be cured in the next version of the product:

A telephone answering machine that has no wall mounting. It only takes a small change in the mold of the plastic for the back of the unit to enable screws to hold the device on the wall. The answering machine has its cable permanently connected to the device, making it difficult to use a shorter cable when needed.
A word processor that has the most unusual and troublesome defaults. These cause the users a myriad of problems, including reformatting an entire document when a small change is made to the appearance of a piece of text.
An electrical sub-panel for eight circuits that only has room for four ground wires. This makes it difficult to connect all the circuits.
A five-stage water filter that does not mark which of its filters fit into which holder.
A graphical (windowing) computer operating system where the mouse cursor jumps around the screen.
A toaster oven with an electronic timer built in, that does not stay on long enough to toast an English muffin in one toasting session. (It only takes a larger resistor in the timing circuit to make it work properly.)
A digital timer coffee maker (I love this product for its flaws and the flaws in the User Manual). Quiz: For home use, when do you think most people want to have coffee automatically brewed? I think it’s in the morning. However when a user sets the clock, the time display starts at 12:00 A.M. But when the user sets the brew timer (when the coffee will begin brewing) the timer starts at 12:00 P.M. This is not just a flaw; this is silly.

The Users of your product need to know how to get around its warts. Think about these warts, how to overcome them, and the best way to tell the User the techniques you find.

If you do not think that your product has warts, then you may be living in a fantasy world. The entire concept of the “next version” of the product suggests failings in the product. If these shortcomings are not in the product itself, then they are failings in our understanding of how our User needs to/wants to use the product. 2. Leaves out tips that would help the User in his/her experience with the ProductAfter using any product, one comes up with tips for better use. Share these tips with your Users so they will have the best possible experience with your product. Here are three examples:

Example 1: Probably the most outrageous missing tip is a product feature that is not described anywhere in the User Documentation. I have a low-flush toilet. These toilets have been the butt (sorry about the pun) of jokes because they have trouble with large quantities of “solid waste.” My toilet has an undocumented feature. If I hold the handle down the entire time the flush is taking place, there will be extra water to handle the large quantity of “solid waste.” But it’s not documented! That is really a missed tip!Think about how your User might want to and need to use the product. Add tips to help him/her.

Example 2: One of the worst omissions is to leave out a tip that is essential to the use of your product. I have a manual can opener that clamps and locks to the can when you squeeze the handles together. However, it requires a hard squeeze to clamp the can opener to the can. In fact, the handles flex and make this task almost impossible.

My son discovered a tip that the manufacturer forgot to mention. If a User squeezes the handles with moderate pressure, and at the same time turns the knob that moves the can around, then the clamping will be a simple process. This tip changes the use of the can opener from a frustrating task to a simple one. Yet the manufacturer “forgot” to mention it. Had they never used their own product?