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Do people need to read it for it to help?

Why do companies fail to see the value of documentation?  Simple answer: virtually no one reads it. While true, does this mean that the few people who do read it are the only ones who benefit from the information in the documentation?  The answer is a resounding No.

Technical writing scholars Mark Baker and Tom Johnson point out that people tend to spread knowledge about products.  Baker says that “a user does not have to have read a manual (for manual, read any form or packaging of technical communication) for it to shape their actions and their behavior. I’m willing to bet that there is one person in your family who reads the manual for a new gadget and then teaches everyone else how to use it.” These people—the ones who do read the documentation—become what famous author Malcolm Gladwell calls “mavens.”  The process goes something like this: the maven gathers information, then answers questions from the average user and may even actively seek ways to share his/her knowledge, and all of this happens through channels such as forums, casual conversations, and social media.  Gladwell cites the 1-800 number on soap packaging to characterize mavens. Most of us wouldn’t call that number, but a “soap maven” would, and this maven would then distribute soap information. So the question now becomes, not blah blah blah, but how does the maven get this information?  The answer is that the maven reads the technical documentation and then shares that information.

It’s true, some mavens are able to get the information they disseminate simply by using the product and figuring out how it works.  But it is arguably impossible for someone to learn everything about a product without documentation.

Baker gives a striking example with The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes, which is the basis of Western economics. Baker demonstrates that virtually all of us have heard numerous arguments for or against its assertions—its main argument is that economies need government intervention to function—while very few have read it. Still, we know this idea. It becomes clear that for a document’s (in this case, a book’s) information to affect many, only a few need to actually read it.

Eric Schmidt of Google recently said, “Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter also allow users to leverage their social networks to find answers to their questions. Google is therefore competing with all methods available to access information on the Internet, not just other general search engines.” There are so many ways to get information that the idea that the value of a document is based on how many people read it is very narrow-minded. The key is that the document must simply provide information to the maven, and then the document’s content will be spread to all those who need its information.

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