User-Centered Documentation

Applying Universal Principles of Design to Tech Comm

Created by Tom Johnson / @tomjohnson

January 9, 2017

About me

  • Live in Silicon Valley
  • Work at Amazon Lab 126
  • Focus on developer doc
  • Like building sites with Jekyll
  • Creative writing background
  • Family with 4 daughters
  • Love to play basketball

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Slides move down to drill into the same principle with more detail. Headings also become orange. Slides move right when moving on to another principle.

Observations in Usability Labs

It could take years of observation to arrive at design principles that are already known.

Universal Principles of Design

Tested principles of design that work with humans.

Applicable Design Principles

Creating content

  • Freeze-Flight-Fight-Forfeit
  • Readability
  • Legibility
  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio
  • Picture Superiority Effect
  • Performance Load
  • Personas
  • Normal Distribution
  • Design by committee
  • Depth of processing
  • Iteration

Organizing content

  • Modularity
  • Hierarchy
  • Five Hat Racks
  • Progressive Disclosure
  • Entry point
  • Desire line
  • Wayfinding
  • Immersion
  • Consistency
  • Forgiveness

My approach

  • Plug into standard design principles
  • Apply the principles to documentation
  • Group the principles into two main groups:
    • Creating content
    • Organizing content
  • Evaluate the principles against help content

Creating content


Users under stress go through an emotional state where they first freeze, then potentially flee, or fight, and finally forfeit. Write documentation with the assumption that users will read it in a state of annoyance, anger, and tension. This means readers will scan, jump around, and read quickly.

See also: Ockham's Razor

How does this user consume help content?

Readers scan

How Users Read on the Web

Summary: They don't. People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.
— Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group

Use article summaries

Use lots of subheadings

Image from UX Matters. See also Subheadings: Perhaps the Most Useful Technique in Technical Writing

Make sentences short and easy

We're thinking "great literature" (or at least "product brochure"), while the user’s reality is much closer to "billboard going by at 60 miles an hour." — Steve Krug, Don't Make Me Think

Structure information in lists

From Steve Krug, Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability


Sentences should be simple, clear, and easy-to-understand, especially as the concepts get more complex. In fact, the more complex the material, the simpler the sentences need to be.

See also: Legibility, Highlighting

Unreadable content — no list formatting

"Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446)."

Jakob Nielsen, How Users read on the web

Rewritten for readability — 124% usability improvement

"In 1996, six of the most-visited places in Nebraska were:

  • Fort Robinson State Park
  • Scotts Bluff National Monument
  • Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum
  • Carhenge
  • Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer
  • Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park"

Jakob Nielsen, How Users read on the web

Determine readability scores

Include a glossary


General guidelines:

  • 9-12pt font size
  • 10-12 words (55 characters) per line
  • dark text on light background
  • 70% + contrast
  • leading 1-4 pts more than font size
  • serif vs. san serif doesn't matter

Legibility example from Apple

Signal-to-Noise Ratio

Focus the users' attention on what matters by reducing extraneous information. Eliminate content that is merely "noise" as opposed to meaningful information.

Minimalism shortens exposition, focuses on tasks

The premise behind minimalism is that people learning to use computer software are impatient, mentally active, and curious. They want to begin right away getting their work done.

David Farkas and Thomas Williams summarizing John Carroll

Focus on real-world tasks

Keep the focus in the task domain

Picture Superiority Effect

Pictures combined with text provides users with better comprehension and recall. Especially as users quickly scan a page, pictures (simple, concrete, and reinforcing a clear message) help users understand the material better.

See also: Iconic Representation, Redundancy

Engineers love the whiteboard

Beginners are especially drawn to visuals

Visuals reduce cognitive load on complex subjects

Ruth Clark and Chopeta Lyons, Graphics for Learning

Show workflows and processes

Use simple line drawings, not photographs

Clark and Lyons,  Graphics for Learning

Avoid Chartjunk

Edward Tufte, Envisioning Information

Worry about ideas, not high art

Performance Load

The larger, more complex the system, the greater the strain on the user. The greater the strain, the lower the user's success. In many cases, documentation that is too massive deflates the user from even trying at all.

See also: Cost-Benefit, Hierarchy of Needs, Control

Users resist long documentation

When it becomes worth it

"An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it."
Mooer's Law

Quick reference guides

Instead of eliminating potentially useful info, provide quick reference guides that help users get oriented quickly with minimal cognitive load and low cost.

What are quick reference guides

  • Differs from getting started, but both are welcome
  • Main tasks described in compressed, poetry-like form
  • Like cliff notes or cheat sheet
  • Shows shape of help content
  • Especially helpful for lists of functions, classes, methods

Quick reference guides example

Strategy: Create "getting started" guides

Complex process layouts

Quick reference guide layouts

Provide sequential tutorials

Give the big picture


Create composite descriptions of users based on real research to guide decision-making about design. These personas help you remember that you're not the user. Three primary personas and four secondary personas are sufficient.

Normal Distribution

Document what most users need to know, and omit info that applies to a tiny subset of users (edge cases or obvious information). Adding it into the main documentation dilutes the information for the majority.

Design by Committee

Reduce the number of errors, gaps, and mistakes by involving a number of unbiased experts to influence the content.

Tech writers are usually outsiders to the business environment, not as familiar with the industry context of the product nor as versed in the technology as engineers and QA. As such, involve their input as much as possible to increase the quality and comprehensiveness of the documentation.

Depth of Processing

Users will better learn a system if they have to do more thinking, analysis, and other deep processing activities related to the system.

Consider including activities that have users think and analyze actions in scenarios or other activities, rather than just following step-by-step instructions.

Provide hello-world tutorials


Products usually start out simple and get increasingly more detailed and refined with each additional iteration. It often takes multiple iterations — through reviews, user feedback, testing, etc. — to achieve a high level of quality.

When writing doc, recognize the iterative element behind writing documentation. Publishing version 1 shouldn't be considered done, just the first iteration of the content.

Organizing content


Break up content into independent topics that can be viewed, understood, and updated independent of the whole. A topic or chunk should not be so interconnected with the whole that it cannot stand on its own.

Users read non-sequentially

You can just read the sections about the tasks you want to do.
— John Carroll, The Nurnberg Funnel

Modularity sounds great. Where do things go wrong?

1. Writers assume building blocks equal presentation

2. Writers auto-burst print books based on h2

"Frankenbooks": Modularity gone wrong

A Frankenbook is organized neither for linear reading, nor for random access. No matter where you land in it, you are in the middle of a maze with buttons to move up, down, or sideways, but no means of finding the end of any thread of narrative, great or small. Every page is page 297 and none of them answer your question .... .
— Mark Baker, Every Page Is Page One

Treat "Every Page Is Page One"

Mark Baker's mantra

Create self-contained topics

Provide context before

Provide context after

Modularity best practices

  • Make topics meaningful enough to stand on their own
  • Don't be afraid to make long topics
  • Assume users might be starting at that page
  • Link to any necessary context (prereqs, assumptions) at the beginning of the topic


A hierarchical outline of the content (with parent and child items organized in trees) helps users both understand and visualize complex information.

Hierarchies that are too complex, or which hide parent-child displays, fail to communicate. Find a balance that allows users to take in the hierarchy at a glance in a meaningful way.

Hierarchy provides meaning

Navigation provides a narrative for people to follow on the web.
— James Kalbach, Designing Web Navigation: Optimizing the User Experience

Google hierarchy example

Tip: Shorten titles in your navigation

"Getting Started Building
Widgets for System Z"
"Build widgets"
"About Managing Language
Settings in Product Z"
"Manage language settings"
"Configuring the Gizmo Settings
for Development Environments"
"Set up developer environment"

Sentry hierarchy example

Hierarchy best practices

  • Limit navigation (hierarchy) to 3 levels, placed on left
  • Allow users to see the full navigation menu at a glance
  • Break up massive navigation into multiple menus
  • Provide a way to navigate from one nav menu to another
  • Put page-level navigation on the page, preferably on right

Five Hat Racks

You can organize content in 5 ways:

  • Alphabet
  • Time
  • Location
  • Continuum (degree)
  • Category (likeness)

Generally, doc is grouped by category more than location (except with context-sensitive help).

Five Hat Racks Example

Click to enlarge. (From Universal Principles of Design)
Affinity diagramming

Group by category, not location

Only group by location if you're creating context-sensitive help within the UI.

Faceted navigation

Faceted navigation is arguably the most significant search innovation of the past decade.
— Peter Morville, Search Patterns

Tags are practical facets

With tags, your files and photos can be in two, three, or more “places” at once.
— Gene Smith, People-Powered Metadata for the Social Web

Progressive Disclosure

Layer information so that you don't present everything to the user at once. Make some information available only at secondary or tertiary levels of navigation.

See also: Layering, Constraint

Strip tease your information

Progressive disclosure is the best tool so far: show people the basics first, and once they understand that, allow them to get to the expert features. But don't show everything all at once or you will only confuse people and they will waste endless time messing with features that they don't need yet.
— Jakob Nielsen, Interaction Design

Example of progressive information disclosure

An example of progressive disclosure in the UI

Different sidebars for different layers

Entry Point

The entry point to your system should orient users and allow them to easily get started. Avoid barriers that block, confuse, or otherwise hinder the user's progress to their goal.

Use homepage as routing page

Example Entry Point with Azure Docs

Desire Line

Look at common paths users take through information, and then make those paths more prominent and standard.

Sample desire line

From Flickr by George Redgrave

Determine lines through metrics

Which pages are getting the most hits? Create a clear path to those pages.

80/20 Rule

80% of your hits come from 20% of your pages. It might follow that this 20% should occupy 80% of the visibility.

Put top 10 articles on entry point

If users consistently go to the same 10 topics, put those topics front and center in your help system to facilitate a more standard path to those topics.


Provide navigational signposts — such as breadcrumbs or other workflow maps — to help orient users as to where they are in a larger system. Don't assume that the user navigated to the current page following the path you intended.

Example breadcrumbs from Facebook


Users desire to be immersed in the application or system they're using rather than leaving that system to consult a separate, external system for help. Allow users to stay immersed in the application context by bringing help into the application.

See also: Fitt's Law

Users don't want to use help

The conclusion of most studies about how people use help is that people don't use help.
-- Mike Hughes, I'd Rather Be Writing podcast

Audio excerpt

Bring help into the UI

Fitt's Law

The further a user must travel with their cursor, the less accuracy the user will have in reaching the target object.
— Travis Lowdermilk, User-centered Design

Much of the UI is text

This is the same UI without text

WordPress UI without text

Youtube UI without text


Follow the same patterns (navigation, naming, locations, look and feel) from one instance of your tech docs to another. As much as possible, maintain consistency with industry-wide help standards and approaches.

See also: Interference Effects

Same experience across doc sets

Common patterns with help systems

  • Navigation on left
  • Search feature
  • On-page TOC either on right (fixed) or center
  • Login in upper-right
  • Steps arranged in list numbering

Google doc follows common industry patterns


Taking risks, experimenting, and exploring systems on their own helps users learn. When users make errors during these activities, help guide them back on the right path.

Sample help in console with Jekyll includes

Find all error messages in your system

Test everything yourself


Creating content

  • Freeze-Flight-Fight-Forfeit
  • Readability
  • Legibility
  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio
  • Picture Superiority Effect
  • Performance Load
  • Personas
  • Normal Distribution
  • Design by Committee
  • Depth of Processing
  • Iteration

Organizing content

  • Modularity
  • Hierarchy
  • Five Hat Racks
  • Progressive Disclosure
  • Entry Point
  • Desire Line
  • Wayfinding
  • Immersion
  • Consistency
  • Forgiveness



Tom Johnson
[email protected]