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For many companies, it’s easy to see why technical documentation gets ignored:
• It costs money.
• No one wants to do it.
• No one uses it.
It’s no surprise that technical documentation is the last item to make it on the project plan and the first item to cut from the budget. End of story.

Maybe. But if you look at the costs involved in not producing good documentation (or any at all), the answer isn’t so simple.

Is Documentation A Waste of Money?

Technical documentation is certainly not free. Either companies hire a technical writer to work with the team developing the technical product (hardware or software) or the developers and engineers themselves write the documentation.

Technical writers don’t get paid nearly what they’re worth (compare their salaries to developers) but they don’t work for free (although sometimes it seems that way). And then there’s the issue of where to find good technical writers and whether to hire them as in-house resources or contract with a firm. Some of these issues are addressed in last month’s newsletter, “Should You Outsource Technical Writing?”

As for developers writing documentation, if you need evidence of their fondness for writing documentation, check out Google. When I googled “Why don’t developers like to write documentation,” the title of one article, I thought, summed it up nicely: “Don’t be a Jerk: Write Documentation.” Even the ones who are good at writing don’t like to write (which is why they became developers in the first place) and if they’re writing documentation, they’re not developing products.

Ok, so it costs money to write documentation. But is it a waste of money?

Let’s consider the costs of not writing documentation or producing unusable documentation which is probably worse than not writing any at all.

What happens when someone tries to use your product but can’t figure how to? Most likely, he calls the help desk. The average call to a help desk costs between $12 and $40. Customer service representatives, while also underpaid, do not work for free. A vice president at one of the major cell phone companies in the U.S. estimated that every time someone calls his help desk with a question on how to use a feature on a phone, it cost the company $15. How many calls does it take to justify an investment in good documentation? Not many.

Or what happens when the customer service representative can’t answer the question because there’s insufficient support material available? He has to interrupt the developer to help him answer the question. A software company in Atlanta recently engaged a technical writing firm to help it document its application because whenever there was a question, it took between 2 and 3 days for the developers to find an answer. And while they were searching the code for the answer, not much development was being done. What were the costs of delivering the new product late?

Or an even worse scenario, the person can’t use the product, doesn’t want to call the help desk so he simply returns the product and announces through social media what a terrible product you produced. What are the costs of that?

So the answer to the question, why bother writing technical documentation, is simple: you can’t afford not to.

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