User Generated Content (UGC), that is user documentation written by users, is growing trend in the world of technical communication. However, although there are enormous benefits from UGC, we’ve found it can lead users to miss professionally written user documentation. The consequence of this can be that users search and navigate down blind allies in a search for useful and relevant information.
So is UGC creating a scotoma, or tunnel vision, in the mind of the users?
Let’s look at an example
This blog, by one software vendor, describes a solution for how organisation can host its own powerful content management system “in the cloud” for peanuts. It comes with disclaimers that this is not supported officially by the vendor, but there’s evidence it is possible. Via the comments at the end of the blog post, you’ll discover the original solution has been superseded, but the writer has helpfully provided a rough outline on the best way to do it today.
So the curious user is sent off on a quest to find the complete answer.
The first stop on this quest is the links in the article itself. Because the solution is not supported officially, in this example, the linked pages do not provide the full answer.
So what does the user do next? We found, in most cases, their second step will be to search on Google and see if the solution has been provided anywhere else. In this example, it will lead them to blog articles written by a variety of different people and organisations. This article, by Phil Paradis, for example, provides his solution to the problem.
We found the a key problem with the user generated content in the scenario above, it wasn’t clear whether the advice was still valid or not. A user could spend a great deal of time diving into the murky depths of Linux terminal commands, only to discover eventually that the hosting software part of the solution had been updated to be more user-friendly. What’s more, it now came with very clear user assistance.
Why are users going towards the unofficial documentation?
There are a number of possible reasons why users are more likely to be ending up looking at the unofficial rather than official documentation:
- The user starts by reading a blog and expects the answer to also be in a blog. The reader has created a scotoma in their mind.
- The search terms entered by the user into Google are more likely to lead them to unofficial content than official content.
- Because the solution is not supported officially, the official documentation does not provide information on this topic.
- The official user documentation is not ranked highly by Google.
- The official user documentation has been poorly written, in comparison to the unofficial content.
What is the solution?
A lot of software solutions are based on integrating a number of applications and services together, and it’s not uncommon for people to be looking for the type of answer outlined in the example above.
As there are a number of reasons why the problem may occur, so there are a number of possible solutions:
- The official user documentation needs to be findable via Google. If users begin their quest by searching, then they are likely to continue to use that approach.
- Present professional user documentation and user generated content in the same system. If they begin by following links, then they likely to continue using that approach. If we can guide users to professional user documentation, with all the version control and provenance information it usually contains, at the right time, then we may be able to combine the best of both types of user documentation.
- Engage with the bloggers via the comments to provide links back to the official documentation.
- Consider the search terms users might enter and provide information that will appear high in the rankings. This may involve creating pages on topics that are not supported officially and contain a number of caveats.
We welcome your thoughts and comments.