The wonderful, horrible life of User Generated Content

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 Via the comments at the end of the blog post, you’ll discover the original solution has been superseded, but the writer has helpfully provided a rough outline on the best way to do it today.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.


Julie Norris

These are some great tips for handling UGC. In case it might be helpful, I thought I’d send a link to the transcripts for the #tcchat about Managing and Integrating UGC, which was held in October. There are some links to examples and discussion about various aspects of working with UGC. Here’s the link: Hope that helps! Also, an upcoming session in December will be about Search and SEO.

Sarah Maddox

Hallo Ellis

This is a thought-provoking post! Many of us are grappling with UGC. I’d even say that all of us are grappling with it, but some of us just don’t know that yet. 🙂 The fact is that users will go and search Google to find the answers to their questions. If they don’t find our documentation first, they will find other information first. For that reason, I think the first and last of your bullet points under “What is the solution?” are the most important: SEO of our documentation. The first criterion is then that the documentation must be online and open for all to see.

Another solution is to go where the users are and see what they’re asking. They’re all over the place, in Twitter, forums, Facebook, blogs and other types of online communities. Of course, there just aren’t enough technical writers to monitor all those locations and also write the docs. What we need is some tool that searches the web for relevant comments/topics and alerts us when they come in. Google Alerts may be part of the solution, but I don’t think there’s a complete one anywhere yet.

Does anyone have any ideas in that area?



Thanks Sarah. I agree. Ian Truscott (@IanTruscott) commented on Twitter that Technical Authors may need to develop a social media strategy.

The example I cited related to integrating two applications and this is often, when it comes to support and documentation, where cracks appear.

Elizabeth Crum

In my current workplace, we have received a request to do more “external learning” which lends credence to what Sarah says about the need to go where users go. Keeping pace with all the social networks is no mean feat but if TW free-lancers want to keep working they have no choice. This policy of external learning is being commended to IT employees of this company.

My concern is that there is a generation of people who google everything and I fear for their powers of discrimination.

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