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Technical Writing by Mark Metcalfe, Publications Professional

"Nobody reads the documentation," is something I hear a lot. There is another adage in software development that says, "if software is developed properly, then we won't need documentation." This may be true, I do not know, but since I've been in this profession for so long, it may be true that precious few software products were developed properly.

However, (even as a documentation professional), I readily confess that I too tinker with software before I resort to reading about its features. There is much to be said about intuitive interfaces reducing the need for information about a product.

Sparse documentation may be fine for simple products with targeted functionality, but complex software that is "feature rich" is more likely to need information about how a user can go from dabbling to dazzling. This is where RTFM ("read the fine manual") comes in.

If documentation is so-so, people access it only when they need to, because most so-so documentation is operational, focused primarily on describing the features of a product instead of how to put the product to good use. So-so documentation can perform only somewhat adequately. It never receives praise, but it will be criticized when it does not meet minimum requirements or expectations. So-so documentation damages the product (and company brand) by conveying the perception of inferior quality.

If documentation is well-written (and useful), people access it more often because they want to and because the information communicates and relates information in ways that people want to learn. Well-written documentation performs its function of making people productive (and occasionally gets praise).

Mark Metcalfe

Posted on Thursday, June 11, 2009 11:34 AM | Back to top

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