What Users Don’t Care About

It seems most of the conversations in our industry today revolve around value. If you go to stc.org, the large graphic at the center of the site says “The Value of Technical Communication.” (Given the recent events in the STC, to me the graphic really reads, “The value of the STC organization.”) At any rate, technical writers have been talking about demonstrating value to employers in quantifiable ways for years.

The value of technical communication

Technical writers frequently talk about value, but much of the value is invisible to users

Part of the problem in our attempt to demonstrate value is that our help deliverables look the same as they did 15 years ago, more or less. Online help and a PDF manual. It’s not a format that engages users. The web marches forward with innovation after innovation, while the technical communicators are figuratively hunched over keyboards, staring at CRT monitors, wearing 1950s horn-rimmed glasses, typing away. At times it seems the technical writer is a relic of a past tradition, a figure barely hanging on to the rapid pace of technology in the 21st century. Or so it would seem.

Although that’s the general impression, actually technical communication has had considerable innovation lately. DITA has provided an advanced XML architectural standard for single sourcing that all technical communicators can implement. Even putting aside DITA, single sourcing technologies with help authoring tools have become more common. The old method of copying and pasting to produce multiple deliverables is a primitive practice no longer typical. We’ve moved into an age of efficient authoring. We can now generate seventeen deliverables from just one, original source. Brilliant!

But whatever methodology has changed in our creation process, the value of our industry’s innovation only trickles down to the user, and in an almost unnoticeable way. You may have single sourced your documentation from a large snippet library, breaking up your topics into granular chunks that you’re cleverly reusing through your topics, and pulling it all together with conditional builds. But to the user, it’s the same old online help and PDF manual.

The user could care less whether the PDF manual is single sourced. Keith Anderson (on Twitter, @suredoc) writes,

I personally believe you can argue the merits of DITA or single sourcing all day long, but the dirty little secret of our industry is simply that users don’t care. They just don’t care. They do know how they want information and will consume the information in ways that are comfortable or familiar to them (“Sheep, Chaos, and User Experience”).

In other words, it doesn’t matter to users how you created the documentation. What matters to them is what you create. We have a somewhat similar policy at my work. It doesn’t matter whether you work 20 hours or 80. You just have to get the job done. Our CIO even says we can leave to go watch our kids’ soccer games at 2 p.m. if we want, as long as we get the job done. (He doesn’t mention that it’s nearly impossible to finish all your work.) But the focus is on the output, the deliverables, not the clever or cruel process we endure to create them.

Here’s another example. Did you happen to read Richard Hamilton‘s Managing Writers? It’s formatted in Doc Book, did you know? Doc Book streamlined Richard’s printing process, enabling him to stylize the format in different ways without altering the source. He can print a news article format, a booklet format, and a book format from the same source by just altering a stylesheet. He can also generate the content as HTML, ePub, CHM, or PDF without any additional work.

Despite the innovative format, to most of us who read it, it’s still just a book. It looks like all the other books on our shelves. I think most of us, in reading the book, might admit that we don’t really care how he created the product (except from a professional curiosity perhaps). Our primary purpose is in the product itself, the content, not with the way it was made. I don’t really care if Richard stayed up past midnight every night for two years writing the book, or if he wrote it on the bus, or whether he piecemealed from a private wiki, or published by typing with two fingers on a netbook sitting in a café in Italy while eating plum pastries. What I care about is the end product.

Because users value the product rather than the process, and tech comm’s innovation has been in the process, technical communication comes across as stagnant, without innovation, and stuck in the past, while web technologies march forward. The evolution of the web, from static pages in primitive HTML to rich, audiovisual, dynamic content you can interact with by commenting on, subscribing to, trackbacking, aggregating, and mashing up demonstrates tangible progress. It’s an advancement in value that you can see and feel in every way, unlike the invisible advances in tech comm.

The frustrating part is that innovation in technical communication—however invisible—does actually benefit the user in a number of ways. According to my colleague Paul Pehrson (@docguy on Twitter), because of DITA and single sourcing, users now have more consistent documentation. Previously, with the copy and paste method, multiple deliverables would invariably be out of sync—updates would be made to one but not the other. Copying and pasting would also exhaust technical writers, and last minute changes were a nightmare.

Now with single sourcing, synchronization issues are no longer a problem. Last minute changes can easily be accommodated. Topics in multiple sources are the same because they’re generated from the same source. Translation costs are also reduced.

Because of single sourcing, we can also provide more custom, role-based guides. Rather than delivering one enormous reference manual, we can deliver smaller guides for each role. And we can provide all of this information more quickly, with fewer resources producing it. One person can really generate 17 guides, and even update them nightly through an automated build process each time he or she makes a small change to the content during the day. The reduced time decreases the cost of the product overall, making documentation both cheaper and more accurate.

Still, despite these advancements, the user still holds a manual in hand and thinks nothing has changed in decades. This is perhaps the flaw of DITA: no noticeable increase in value in the deliverable. In fact, the plain formatting and generic style may even appear to be a decrease in value. Without any tangible, immediately felt benefits to the user, the deliverables seems stagnant and lacking innovation. It’s a misunderstanding, though—somewhat like the poor, overworked employee who puts in 80 hour work weeks but has nothing extra to show for it.

Adobe RobohelpMadcap Flare

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

24 thoughts on “What Users Don’t Care About

  1. paulm

    Interesting article. I agree in many aspects, but there are many vision-setting folks working with social media delivery and looking at ways to involve communities and integrate their content with community-contributed content. The tools just provide us with the mechanisms to accomplish our goals.

    I was talking with a colleague just the other day about information design. I believe the best design is done without any tools in mind. Then, when you have the design you want to deliver, you find the tools and solutions to use to implement your design (delivering content when, where, and how the user wants and needs it).

      1. Noz

        THANK YOU, Tom, for raising this. I am quite fervent about the ‘So f***ing what?’ angle on XML (or DITA) at the moment!
        We offer our clients solutions regarding solution media and XML, and push them to think about ‘value’ and ‘ROI’ not only as % saved, but as user experience increases. When collaboration platforms (which is what I think social media in the business world constitutes) become synonymous with (to the point of replacing) traditional publishing channels, then information assets are consumed, monitored and improved in a wholly new way. You brings users into the content, into dialogues in it and around it, which engage them infinitely more than a really accurate, really fast and consistent manual ever, ever will.
        I think that in fact the rift between those that understand XML and those that don’t not only still exists but is getting larger and larger. Answering the ‘So what?’ question is vital to continuing the understanding that the market has on XML content.
        You said, “This is perhaps the flaw of DITA: no noticeable increase in value in the deliverable.” Therein lies the rub. I had a client saying to me just last week, and I quote, “The fundamental problem with XML is that the documents are too large and can’t be subdivided”. To illustrate the problem with both these type of conclusions I’ll simply apply it to another better understood technology:
        “The problem with content in databases is that it’s inflexible, slow to access and requires expensive software to store it.”
        This may be true of many databases, but it is a function of the implementations, NOT the technology. XML and DITA do not have the flaws stated in any way, it is that most solution buyers have only the vision to get the most basic solutions off the ground. Really doing something interesting in DITA means deeply re-thinking your content structures and delivery methods. Most solutions are in there to save a buck, not to actually improve anything.
        I look forward to 2010 because I think it’s the year the wider market will start to see the ‘2nd gen’ DITA solutions that begin scratch the surface of what new *functionality* these technologies can deliver when properly applied.

  2. Anne Gentle

    Hi Tom and Paul – Nice post for thought provocation.

    I have to say, I still think there are social web integrations like RSS syndication, easy content sharing, collaborative authoring, web stats, and rapid publishing that traditional help vendors are not supplying to us. My book, Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation, has lots of ideas for social web integration, but when I got done with it, one thing that stuck out to me is that there wasn’t a clear method or tool chain associated with the ideas in the book.

    We’re working on putting together a DITA for Web 2.0 subcommittee (I’m not sure that’s the “real” name of it), where we’ll look for those integration points to the social web and the semantic web. And you’re right Paul, it’s just a mechanism. Real community building and real conversation with users is outside of a tools’ responsibility.

    1. Tom

      I think most people are convinced that communication and conversation are the way to go, but making it happen within their limited environments is sometimes a condundrum.

      Also, part of the frustration with using so many different tools is that the content isn’t usually unified by one search. The user has to search multiple places for info.

    1. Tom


      Thanks for calling me on my lack of evidence. David Farbey gave a great presentation exploring the topic “Is Help Broken?” or something to that effect. He cited a survey done by Tech Guys or PC World (can’t remember) showing all kinds of dissatisfaction with help. I think most people would agree that generally, help is poor for products they buy. At least that was the conclusion of this survey.

      Whether this means users want more innovation and social media integrated into the help is a stretch. But if they are dissatisfied, it suggests help is not innovating to overcome the issues users are facing.

      1. Ellis Pratt

        The TechGuys is a division of PC World. n
        67% said they don’t get the full use out of their technical devices because the manual was too difficult to understand. 34% avoided the manual altogether, preferring trial and error instead.
        20% admitted to throwing the manual across the room.
        8% have taken their frustration out on the piece of equipment they were trying to set up out on the piece of equipment they were trying to set up.


      2. Tom

        Thanks Ellis. I appreciate your leaving your reply with the factual details and a link. I still love that statistic about 20% throwing the manual across the room.

    1. Tom

      I think users generally feel that 90% of help sucks. Exactly what kind of solution they want, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s not so much innovation as simply better written, presented, organized, structured, formatted help content. Perhaps some of the technological advancements can help tech authors achieve those ends.

  3. Milan Davidovic

    @Ellis — that Mail Online appears to be about something other than the Tech Guys survey; correct?

    I did a little digging and found other pages referring to the Tech Guys survey, but haven’t yet tracked down the primary source. I’d like to know more about how they did the survey, e.g. whether it relied on convenience sampling http://bit.ly/1GCG6F.

    1. Ellis Pratt

      I think the Mail article indirectly refers to the study. There was a piece on the BBC web site, but I couldn’t find it. It didn’t appear to be a serious scientific survey – more something that would generate some column inches for the Tech Guys’s services.

  4. writer zero

    If my friends and I were planning to start a company that made either a device or software that didn’t target a niche audience this would be my plan:

    Create a position/group that was oriented around Product Support. The ideal employees would provide an even mix between having experience in end-user-support and technical writing.

    I think that the old-school technical writing continuum hasn’t embraced that it doesn’t just create 10000 page documents for the aerospace industry or military anymore.

    Most of the time, the value is in keeping users happy and informed. Cranking out documentation isn’t necessarily the best way to accomplish this. Great tech communication is a means and tool to support the user and create internal efficiencies, but it must be wielded properly to create the value/ROI that companies want to see.

  5. Hakan Selvi

    It is very right that the people to not care about technical conversations and i am sure there are a lot of people who agree me to this point. Everyone should take care about technical point.

  6. Julio Vazquez

    Interesting article. While it’s true that help and books have the appearance of not being much different than 15 years ago, I think you may see some change in the coming years. DITA will have a role in those changes as we all get a better handle on what the user’s truly care about. Even when we write, we have to continue to ask ourselves the question, “Who cares?” (which has been my mantra for a while) and if the answer isn’t the person using the product, we have to get rid of the information or move it into a reference guide where it might be more appropriate.

    If a product’s help system becomes web-reliant (notice I didn’t say dependent) there are other interesting things that can occur to help the user achieve their goal. I would say that use of multimedia within the web-based content will make a difference in the user experience and help them do things right the first time by showing rather than telling. There’s interesting discussions going on about multimedia integeration in DITA sourced output and you can follow some of the thoughts here: http://thecontentwrangler.ning.com/group/ditaandmultimedia.

    In any case, it’s up to the content creators to understand precisely what’s going to help the product user achieve their goal with the product and deliver only the information that supports that in whatever primary output gets delivered and look at the other avenues to provide a dialog with the user to enhance the output.

  7. Jeff Coatsworth

    Quote “Part of the problem in our attempt to demonstrate value is that our help deliverables look the same as they did 15 years ago, more or less. Online help and a PDF manual. It’s not a format that engages users.”

    I totally agree Tom – our company is just now making the transition from PDF online manuals (that nobody liked) to some other format. My first attempt at a “new” format was a .CHM – that instantly got a thumbs-down from management because it “looked old-fashioned.” My next option has been to generate WebHelp – that may fly, but it still relies on “old” technology.

    Users want to see content presented in “new” formats, but software developers haven’t really come up with any new help product formats that technical communicators can use. No wonder we’re perceived as yesterday’s news!

    1. Jeff Coatsworth

      @Milan Some of our users have expressed this desire; but mostly it comes from management’s attempts at refreshing the look of our package. Content quality and accuracy is important to them, but appearance really drives things…

  8. Richard L. Hamilton


    Interesting article. Regarding my book, I agree that readers don’t directly care how I wrote the book (though, writing it while eating plum pastries in Italy is a lot nicer than my actual work environment). But, they may indirectly care if the technology allows me to lower the book’s price, give them more or better content, or provide the content in a more usable form.

    In the end, innovation will come from at least two angles: productivity improvements that customers only see indirectly and new ways of engaging customers. Both have their place, though I think our profession has emphasized the former over the latter, sometimes to the extent of going backwards to become more “productive.” Just recently I heard that a well-known, large corporation is planning to stop offering html-based docs for a major product and just dump pdfs on their website; that might be a short term productivity gain, but it’s a big step backwards for the customer.

    I would like to see more of the kinds of innovations that Anne Gentle speaks about in her reply above. Things that take a new look at how we can engage our customers in a way that enhances their productivity using our products and services. The good news is that this idea does seem to be in the air these days, and I think we’re at the beginning of a sea change in the way we work.

  9. Larry Kollar

    Exactly! The users don’t care. We keep churning out the same ol’ same ol’, we just do it faster these days — perhaps we should start focusing on what we actually deliver and let the buzzwords (DITA, XML, DocBook, content management, single-sourcing, etc.) take care of themselves.

    1. Tom

      Larry, excellent comment. I completely agree. In all the buzz, the focus on process has dominated the discussion, while questions of user value have been downplayed.

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