You learn more from users in 5 minutes than you do from 2 weeks of project meetings
I recently had a project with a small group of users, maybe 35. I joined the project about a month before the scheduled release. I wasn't sure what kind of help the app needed, or what format. A wiki? Screencasts? Online help? A short PDF?
I talked with the lead customer, and he hadn't given much thought about help. I talked with the project manager, a quality assurance engineer, and a developer. The PM didn't know what kind of help the app needed either. The QA engineer thought it needed a few pages of help; a developer said it needed maybe 150 pages. After floundering around for about a week, I realized I was shooting in the dark.
I asked the interaction designer for some names of users I could contact, and he supplied me a name. After talking on the phone with the user for 5 minutes, I knew that my entire previous direction was wrong. They didn't need a robust wiki. "If you created a help system," the user said, "I'm really not sure anyone would use it. We all know the process so well here. The only thing we may need help with is to find where something is in the interface."
This lightened my load incredibly. The way our department often works, we create applications so customized to a specific business process that only users within that business department understand how the application will actually be used. Trying to penetrate this business process requires learning an entirely new culture and knowledge base. But often it isn't necessary to document this business knowledge -- it all depends.
When I started the project, I was fixed on creating documentation that explained not only the how, but the why and who and where and other context. Now I'm basically creating a slideshow of screenshots with some callouts indicating where things are in the interface. I figure it will save me about 2 months of work and will actually be looked at by the users -- all because of a brief phone call with users. I realized that I can learn more from talking with users for 5 minutes than I can from 2 weeks of project meetings. Why is it that I don't talk to users more frequently?
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About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.