I was surprised and mildly pleased this weekend to see my sister-in-law Karin give a quick reference guide or "cheat sheet," as she called it, to her grandma for her birthday. The guide focused on accessing and sending email in Gmail.
Grandma was grateful and elated to see the work and detail that went into the guide, which was laminated and narrow enough to prop up next to her [ancient] computer.
Contrast this happy image, passing around the quick reference guide at the birthday table and listening to the joyful chatter, with the sound of the dreaded almighty thud that large manuals create as one feels the weight and panic of an eternal instruction manual.
Karen's quick reference guide isn't visually engaging or attractively formatted, but she did an excellent job in bringing out all the unconscious details behind checking one's gmail -- a key detail probably necessary for her audience. Yes, this entire quick reference guide (it extends onto the backside as well) just explains how to check your gmail. She avoids jargon and tech writer slang completely as she focuses on just what the user sees.
This Christmas, if you really want to show someone you love them, give them a quick reference guide that you uniquely create for their technical frustrations.
I asked my wife -- wrapping presents on the living room floor tonight -- what her reaction would be if I gave her a quick reference guide on Christmas morning. She thought for a minute, and then confessed that she already knew everything, so the guide would lack value. But if I could address a relevant need, she would welcome it.
It takes me days to write these kinds of guides at work. So this is not an easy way out of a more expensive gift. And it's hard to know exactly what computer troubles others around you have.
But maybe if you focused the guide on a soft-skills topic, such as how to get rid of stress, or how to get children to obey you, or techniques for subduing your husband, or something quirky like that, it might be an approachable and fun gift. It would be a gift she would never forget, that's for sure.
The whole experience confirms to me yet again that users welcome short guides with open arms while continuing to despise and reject long manuals.
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I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.