Curious Mediums, LLC | Empathy: The first quality of useful product documentation
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Empathy: The first quality of useful product documentation

UserGuideArticle

13 Jun Empathy: The first quality of useful product documentation

If you’ve been writing documentation for a while, you’ve probably had the realization that your readers would prefer to be doing something else. In most cases, customers are frustrated to be spending time with your documentation.

In a support interaction, you would make sure that your tone of voice and content match the customer’s perspective and skill level, so that you don’t further frustrate them. In documentation, however, this often gets ignored, and the result is writing that lacks empathy. The good news is that if your writing lacks empathy it’s pretty easy to identify this problem and rewrite. 

How to identify it

Create and monitor a feedback channel for your documentation

Make sure that you are collecting feedback on your writing from both customers and colleagues. This can be as simple as implementing a star rating system or as complicated as creating feedback form that gets added into a weekly report. You need to know as soon as possible if a piece of documentation is not working for your audience.

Keep in mind that this feedback will often not include actual solutions to badly written documentation, but it will be useful in identifying a piece of documentation as a problem. Once you have a list, you can implement a feedback widget on your online documentation pretty easily with a plugin like Polldaddy, and you should talk regularly with customer support reps and salespeople who interact with your customers day to day.

Use the product

This might seem obvious, but in order to write useful product documentation you’ll need to use the product and struggle with it yourself. You should do this regularly, approaching it in all different moods and settings.

How to fix it

Embrace your expertise

It’s okay for your opinion to come through in your writing. You are the expert. The reader assumes you are the expert, so if your writing lacks a point of view, it will send the message that you aren’t confident. Would you follow instructions or trust writing that seems unsure of itself? Just remember that the customer is reading documentation precisely so that they don’t have to do the thinking you did.

Cut out the jargon

Use an informal, active style similar to the way you’d speak to someone in person. How would you explain the process over a support call? Or in person? Do not get bogged down in jargon. The reader may not be familiar with every bit of your business’s lingo and using it will only distract and frustrate them.

Seek immortality

You can’t think that your writing is never going to be seen again. You need to plan for the future. When you write something that will be replaced, the user can tell. Write docs that transcend time.

“Good writing will get replaced. Bad writing will get replaced immediately. Epic writing will get edited.”- Daniya Kamran

Highlight the dilemma

You need to be explicit about why someone should read the document. Your worst enemy is not a competing piece of documentation, but a lack of initiative. So you need to create a sense of urgency, increase the readers autonomy and provide a clear call to action.

What are some of your techniques for editing your writing for empathy? Do you have any pieces of documentation that need a little help? Please share them in the comments below, on twitter (@ssiskind) or via email (sam@curiousmediums.com).

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