Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Benefits Of Creating User Documents In-House

OVERVIEW

For small companies, creating their product's User Documentation in-house, provides benefits to the company, to (idle) staff, and to the product. This article describes the benefits and some downsides of producing User Documents in-house.

THREE OPTIONS

If you have no in-house writing staff you have three options:


1. No User Document for the product. This is NOT a valid option. Every product needs User Documentation. It completes your product package, and enhances the User's experience with your product. Here are two examples of non-existent User Documentation:

* Tomatoes. Most people don't know that before use, tomatoes should not be refrigerated. Refrigerating tomatoes before use will reduce their flavor and nutrition value.

* A Manual Can Opener. This can opener clamps on the can, thus the user does not have to squeeze the handles while operating the can opener. It came with no User Documentation, as "everyone could probably figure out how to use it." This is wrong. After a few uses, the blades become slightly dulled, and the handles are very difficult to clamp and lock.

The simple tip of turning the knob while squeezing the handles makes the can opener easy to use. That tip could form the basis of a User Manual for the product. The manual should include instructions for care of the can opener. The absurd situation is that this clamp feature was the unique aspect of the product; but the feature becomes unusable because of no User Document.

How have you felt about products that came without User Documentation? Were you confused about the product and getting the most from it? User Documentation adds to the value of the product. Let's look at how we can get it created.

2. Use an outside writing service or consultant. Technical writers may be an excellent choice to create your User Documentation. However, there may be downsides to using them.

* When documentation changes have to be made, the company has to re-hire the writer. If the writer were unavailable, then you have to wait or search for a new writer. When the new writer gets hired, a new orientation to the company and the project would have to start. Delays, delays, delays.

* An even more horrible thought is that the outside writer used some fancy piece of software to create the User Document, and you do not own that software. Thus you could not make any changes until you bought and learned that software, or hired an outside writer who uses the same software. (Most technical writers are enamored with a particular piece of esoteric writing software.)

Using the outside writer will force you to batch your documentation changes, making the literature out of date. (How many times have you seen product documentation that does not match the product? This happens because the company was waiting for the next major upgrade to update the User Documentation.)

3. Using idle employees in your company to create the User Documentation. The remainder of this article will focus on this option.

STAFFING BENEFITS

In most organizations, there is some staff down-time. By assigning these staff to create User Documents you benefit from effective use of this down-time, and the employees benefit from experience in a new field.

These staffing benefits include:

* Use staff who may be idle between projects
* Your staff know the company's culture and their fellow staff
* Your staff use existing company-wide writing tools (your word processor)
* No time needed to get oriented with the physical aspects of the job
* You have created a new resource within company

BENEFITS TO YOUR USER DOCUMENTS

If you have in-house writers (even if they are not formally trained as "technical writers") you can just say "Sue, could you or Tom update the document where the sign-in window is presented." Much faster and more flexible then having to go to an outside source. Sue and Tom have ownership of the document, and would work to improve it. They would use software resources available in your organization.

The benefits of in-house writers to your User Documents include:

* You can make corrections as you find the errors.
* You are able to update your User Document when you update your product.
* Better control of timing and resources
* No fear in dealing with the User Document in electronic form. From your word processor or add-ins, you can publish your User Document as a portable data format (.pdf) file, or as HTML for display on the Internet.

DOWNSIDES OF IN-HOUSE WRITING

The primary downsides of in-house User Document creation are the attitude and emotions of your newly-appointed writer. These include:

* Fear ("I don't know how to write")
* Anger ("Why me? This is unfair")
* Uncertainty ("I don't know what to write")
* Isolation ("I've been cast into this writing thing")

You can reduce these negative emotions if you encourage and support your New Writer.

SUPPORT YOUR NEW WRITERS

It is unfair to assign a non-writer to create a User Document without supporting him/her. You have to support your writer with:

* Training;
* Access to the development and marketing teams for product information;
* Use of the development team to evaluate their writing (small chunks);
* Access to the product, industry literature, and marketing materials;
* Style manual;
* Editor -- your writing expert;
* Time to do a good job.

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