How valuable is product documentation?

We received this email from a Documentation Manager, yesterday:

“As times are getting tougher, we’ve been challenged with the age old question of “how valuable is product documentation?” – e.g. prove your worth basically!

Certainly, we know that for a product to be marketable and successful, it needs documentation to support the end user.
However, I am currently trying to gather more information specifically about GUI product online help:
1. How often is it really used? I know every product is different so usage will vary – but in general how do user’s feel about it?
2. Do user’s require it to be context sensitive – or can an e-support Center with all documentation available for searching suffice?
3. What is the current trend for online help structure? Scenario based instructions, quick snippet videos, etc.

Ideally, I’m trying to gain insight into the ROI for documentation efforts spent. If you have any information from past research on the value of documentation, I’d be really grateful if you could share it.

So how would you respond to this challenge?

4 Comments

techcommdood

First, you are on the road to answering your own question: get use info! Feedback is all well and good, but you really should seek opportunities to watch customers use the product. You’ll gain insight not only on how they use the product, but also how they handle getting stuck. More times than not, documentation is written for documentation’s sake, and not intentionally so. It’s normal to think that by giving users everything they need to know, that you are solving their informational needs. More than not this causes more problems than it solves. When people get stuck using a product needed to get their job done, they just want the answer and not an encyclopedic reference. Help them get their jobs done, not just learn the product.

DragonWiz263

Hi there Ellis!

Hope this helps…

1. How often is it really used? I know every product is different so usage will vary – but in general how do users feel about it?

Opinion: Rarely! Truly, the Opinion depends on the audience the documentation is focused towards. If your target audience is people with technical knowledge, most often they figure our solutions by trial and error or some basic look ups on the Internet. However, when it comes to someone who is a novice and not up-to-date with technology, users pretty much rely solely on the documentation provided.

2. Do users require it to be context sensitive – or can an e-support Center with all documentation available for searching suffice?

Opinion: This depends on the users needs and most often I’ve come across individuals who prefer to get info instantly rather than contact someone and wait for an Opinion that they are not sure if would help.

3. What is the current trend for online help structure? Scenario based instructions, quick snippet videos, etc.

Opinion: Videos, Videos and more Videos.

– Eddie Gear

John Ellam

I would not ask how often the product documentation is used? As I think that most of it is used as the last resort, I would ask if it solves the reader’s problem when it is used.

My old boss once responded to a salesman’s negative assessment with, “Of course it isn’t interesting, it is about accounting software. But the night before you go to a customer to sell some functionality you haven’t used before, it suddenly becomes the most interesting thing you’ve ever read.”

When Microsoft released Security Update 896358, which caused problems with CHM files on a server not being displayed, I was pleasantly surprised when users of our software contacted our Support team to ask about the problem. The figure was in the tens not the hundreds but at least it proved that people were using it.

Sadly, “As times are getting tougher” the documentation team is often among the first to be perceived as expendable. Any existing set of documentation will put a tick in a box on an ITT and the Support team have to pick up the pieces when RTFM doesn’t provide the answers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.