Sunday, January 25, 2009

Straight Talk: Surviving Tough Times as a User Assistance Writer

Writing manuals that users will read ...

"One theme looms as a result of the global economic meltdown of 2008: The world will never be the same. We find ourselves living in a brave, new—and uncertain—world. Business models must meet higher standards of viability and sustainability, and the services we bundle in those models must add value more directly than ever before. The economic survival of everyone who develops user assistance is clearly on the line. Quite frankly, some of us are going to make it and some of us aren’t.

Early in my technical communication management career—more than twenty years ago—I made this observation: “I can produce a manual that users won’t read for $50,000, or I can produce a manual that users won’t read for $5,000.” My point was that, until we started writing manuals users actually read, the $5,000 option was the better business strategy. But now, to heck with producing manuals users won’t read, Tony Self of HyperWrite has recently thrown down the gauntlet more forcefully with his article “What if readers can’t read?”

This new world of post-2008 meltdown has changed the game. We must now write manuals users will read, and we must write them for $5,000. If not, we will go out of business. I know that $5,000 figure is probably out of date—as is the concept of a manual—but my point is that, if user assistance is going to survive as a profession, it has to get cheaper and get better at the same time.
“We need to write less, and we need to write about better stuff.”

Our past mistake was that we took our eyes off the ball and chased technology solutions—as if the problem were the delivery of Help or the authoring tools with which we wrote it. From that perspective, I could restate the observation I made two decades ago: “I can write Help that users won’t read using WinHelp.exe or DITA.” Also, in many cases, our companies made poor product decisions, throwing documentation at bad user interface designs rather than fixing the bad designs, resulting in a content glut. So, user assistance got more expensive without getting any better in the eyes of users.

What, then, is the solution? Simple. My mantra for 2009 is this: It’s the content, stupid! In brief, we need to write less, and we need to write about better stuff.

Successful User Assistance Traits for the New Economy

User assistance departments that will survive and prosper in the next decade must employ three distinct strategies:

* reduce documentation costs
* improve the relevance of content
* integrate documentation more closely with product user interfaces

Contextual Knowledge

The strategic goals of reducing documentation costs and improving the relevance of content are closely related. We cannot afford to write about everything; therefore, we need to focus on writing only about the things that are most relevant to solving user problems. User assistance can make its content more relevant by focusing on contextual knowledge. Contextual knowledge relates to what I have sometimes called expert guidance—see my column “User Assistance in the Role of Domain Expert”—or decision support. It is not about the product. It is about using the product to solve user problems—the problems that users bought a product in hopes of solving. Contextual knowledge transfers advanced domain knowledge to users—who have neither the time nor the motivation to acquire that knowledge on their own."    (Continued via UXmatters, Mike Hughes)    [Usability Resources]

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