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Technical Writing Tip:
No Idiot Users

Remember the Barbara Woodhouse show, "No Bad Dogs"? Her philosophy is that there are no bad dogs, but there are dog owners who do not train them as they should.

Likewise, contrary to all the "...for Dummies" books out there, there are no idiot users. However, your users need to be trained how to use your product. They need your documentation to do this.

Here are some suggestions to create your documentation so that users can feel, well, less idiotic when they use your product:

  • Study your audience: Invite users for focus groups. Do some usability testing. What skills do your users already have? What information do they need to know before they can use your product successfully?
  • Push for more intelligent design: Frequently, it's the product design -- not the user -- that's stupid. Use focus testing to determine what design features can make the product more intuitive and easier to use. See Be a User Advocate for more suggestions.
  • Write task-oriented documentation: Users purchase products to accomplish certain tasks. So, structure your documentation around the tasks your users need to perform.
  • Include theory-of-operation information and a glossary: These sections will help users who are unfamiliar with your type of product. Also, users can learn how to use your product more effectively when they understand how it works.
  • Make documentation readily accessible: All the documentation in the world will not help users if they do not open it. So, package documentation so it is easy for users to find when they open the box. Have important information pop up on the computer screen when they first install or run the program (but give them the option of turning it off once they are familiar with it). Remember that labels on the product and on-screen messages are documentation too. Make sure these are clear and helpful.

Remember that everyone is an "idiot" when he or she tries something new. As a technical writer, your job is to make the user feel "smart" about using your product as quickly as possible.

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