Good user experience (UX) is quickly becoming a differentiating factor for websites and software alike. With so many options at their disposal there, users aren't incentivized to use your system when there's something else out that that’s easier to use. But UX principles don't just apply to software; your docs need to be well-designed as well. After all, what's more frustrating than going to the help only to discover that you can't find the help you need? Use these 7 techniques to find out what your users need and to put best UX practices into effect for your documentation.
So you've taken it to heart that you need documentation. It's good for your business, it's good for your brand, you stood it up and put it out there.... And still nothing is happening. Your customers are still unhappy; your support staff is still overwhelemed. But why? You have docs - aren't they doing their job? And that's exactly the question. How do you know if your docs are crap, and what do you do about it if they are?
Get ready to get your support agents to help gather clues: you'll need information about the exact problem to know where your docs are falling short.
I’ve been a technical writer for almost six years, and I’ve spent most of that time as the only technical writer in sight. For being the only one, I think I’ve done a pretty good job: I’ve set up docs development cycles, sprinted with Agile development teams, released alongside software deployments, created the documentation architecture for three major products, and generally got a lot of docs out in a short time.
All that said, my docs effort hasn’t been flawless. I’ve typically operated like a developer with no QA – reviewing my docs myself, but with little or no outside testing. Without a comprehensive QA step, errors have crept in and compounded. Recently, when I finally regression tested my own docs, I found an error on nearly every page. The most egregious errors provided information that was outdated or wrong.
I had expected to find errors, but I was shocked by the number and frequency. As I fixed them, I realized that docs regression isn’t something that’s commonly added to documentation effort estimates, but it’s a vital step.
What do we mean by "working documentation"? It's difficult to apply a parallel to software. After all, working software is software that works: it functions and doesn't have bugs. Does that mean "working documentation" doesn’t have any "bugs" like grammatical or description errors?
That doesn't feel right. Nor should it. After all, it's hard to say documentation is "working" if it's simply error-free. For documentation, the definition of "working" is "serving the needs of the user." To serve the user, the docs need to be accessible – technologically, physically, and verbally. This goes for every member of the audience at which it’s directed.
I've been thinking about documentation in Agile for a long time, but only recently have I thought about what Agile documentation development itself might look like. Organizations have adopted Agile for its ability to empower teams to create high-quality products faster. From that angle, I wondered whether a documentation team might see some gains by adopting "docs Agile."
To clarify, I'm not talking about including technical writers on Agile teams (although I’ve written about it in the past). Instead, I'm doing a thought experiment to see what the Agile Manifesto would look like if, instead of being applied to development teams, it applied to documentation teams. I’ve tried to keep the docs team incorporated with development and testing during my thought experiment. Overall, I think these ideas are instructive in terms of what writing teams can do within an Agile framework.