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Technical Writing Tip:
Be a user advocate

This tip was featured on the STC Chicago Chapter Web site. More info

How often has this happened to you: A developer presents you with a kludgy interface or hard-to-use feature along with a convoluted explanation of how to work around it. When you point out how difficult the product is to use, the developer replies, "I know it's hard to use, but you can just explain it in the manual." He or she might even recommend a passage or two of text to put in "24-point bold, red type".

You can't fix poor interface design through documentation. If a product is hard to use, no amount of documentation will make it easier. Here's why:

  • Most people don't read the documentation. Even those who do will try to make the product work by themselves. They will pick up the manual only when they are stuck.
  • If the product is hard to use, it is also hard to explain how to use it. If the product uses non-standard controls, inconsistent terminology, and hard to manipulate controls, it makes the job of documenting even more difficult.

As a technical writer, you need to be a user advocate. You need to fight to make products easier to use. By giving input on improving products, you make your job easier because the product is easier to document. You make support's job easier because they won't get so many calls. You even make development's job easier by making the product easier to support and test. More importantly, you make the customer's job easier because the product is easier to use. Everybody wins.

So how do you become a user advocate? Here are some suggestions:

  • Get involved early in the development process, while there is still time to make changes.
  • Do research into user interface design so that you can back your comments with industry research and standards.
  • Become a strong advocate for usability testing. By gathering user input, you can have a better idea about how to make products that users will want to buy and use.
  • Consider limitations in schedule, staffing, and tools. You will have a better chance in getting your suggestions approved if they are realistic.

The cost in time and effort to make products easier to use will pay off in increased sales and decreased support costs. So, stand up for better, more usable products.

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Technical Writing Tips


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Society of Technical Communication (STC)

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Sharon Burton-Hardin

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