Mark Baker's post, Why documentation analytics may misread, presents an appealing argument about why it doesn't matter if just a few people read the manual. In his post, Mark argues that a small number of key influencers who read the manual can share the knowledge with a much larger group who do not read the manual. The effect of the manual, therefore, disseminates out to a much larger group, even if that group never reads the manual. Mark writes,
A user does not have to have read a manual (for manual, read any form or packaging of technical communication) for it to shape their actions and their behavior. I'm willing to bet that there is one person in your family who reads the manual for a new gadget and then teaches everyone else how to use it. (Since I am writing for technical writers, I am willing to bet that someone is you.) The manual reaches you at first hand, and the rest of your family at second hand. Your kids then probably show their friends how to use the gadget. Some of them will then pester their parents to buy the same gadget, and will then teach their siblings and parents how to use it. Let this process run for a while and you could well have thirty products sold and a hundred people knowing how to use them, all based on one person having read the manual.
I've seen this same principle in practice. I wrote some help for an application at work. As with most help material, not many people read it. But one person did actually read it rather thoroughly. In fact, since it was a wiki, he even contributed a lengthy article to expand the help. This same person is a volunteer forum moderator and participates actively in the forums each day. I don't think there's a thread in the forum that doesn't have a contribution from this individual.
In the forum, it turns out one of the most popular topics is the application I wrote help for. The volunteer answers a ton of questions about this application, disseminating the knowledge to a much wider group. The people who come to the forums to ask questions often don't crack open the help, but they feel its effects in one way or another.
Perhaps in writing help material, rather than envisioning the lowest common denominator, we should target our influencers -- the group that will help others. Paradoxically, maybe the information in the help will find a much greater distribution if we write for fewer people.
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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.