Software Documentation – what users want to know

23 April, 2008 at 4:21 pm | Posted in Help Systems | 1 Comment
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Much software user documentation – Reference Manuals, User Guides and Help Systems – are written from the point of view of “this is what it does”.

But that isn’t what a user wants! When they refer to the documentation it’s because they want to know how to do something.

So why is so much user documentation so useless? I suspect the main reason is that it’s easier to write a descriptive manual than it is to think of all the possible things the user might want to do and then write the instructions for that. After all, you’re bound to find yourself repeating the same instructions in several different places – but the user doesn’t want to have to keep flicking to “page x” or “section y”. It’s easier with on-line text of course, although it often happens that you click through the hyperlinks and then forget where you started from.

If we’re talking about a paper manual, it’s rarely read from front to back like a novel (unless someone has a serious problem of insomnia). It will usually be “dipped into”, so as a minimum you need a good table of contents and ideally you should provide an extensive index.

Help systems are a different kettle of fish altogether. They are always “dipped into” and the user needs to be able to locate the information they are seeking very quickly. I’ll be exploring how not to design Help systems in later posts.

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