Aberdeen Group completed a study earlier this year that indicates when technical communications are approached strategically, companies provide significant customer-facing value. – David Houlihan, Senior Research with Aberdeen’s Product Innovation and Engineering Practice.
What does this mean for technical documentation departments and companies? It means that companies researching, authoring, and producing technical communications need to focus on pertinent data which consumers will actually use. When people comment on the entity that is technical documentation, they use the words “concise” and “practical.” Why does the majority of technical documentation fail to follow these expectations? One of the many problems with technical documentation is that it very rarely uses orality. Many of you might be considering, “Orality? What does that mean?” It means that technical documentation is not written as one would speak which further alienates consumers from ideas and communications which they do not fully understand. Step one in writing anything is to know what you’re writing about. Step two is to understand your audience. This doesn’t mean that when technical documentation is written it should include colloquialisms, vernacular, or regional phrases, but that it should be easily accessible and understood by consumers who are unfamiliar with the product.
Further strategic movement by industries is the idea of globalization. The true aim of a company is to make money; ok, understood. By reaching out to consumer territory they have not yet approached, companies and industries expand their potential growth market. Technical documentation must grow with business. Technical documentation has often been difficult for readers to relate to or get themselves engaged in – small wonder that technical documentation was loathed and strategically placed in the circular file. Today, technical documentation has the added hurdle of identifying with readers from different backgrounds, different languages, and different countries. Because technical documentation is meant to be instructional, it has to be extremely clear in meaning, and thorough in its explanations. It’s important to remember that consumers are usually only going to turn to technical documentation when they have a problem, or if the documentation is meant to be training material. Writers of technical documentation need to anticipate problems that will arise in the consumer’s daily use of a product. A great example to this issue occurred to me and my own family during the holiday season.
My mother is, as she terms it, “computer-illiterate.” Sometimes I’m lucky that she knows how to turn the computer on, much less navigate through the internet. Initially, I would get frustrated with her because she didn’t understand what I was trying to tell her. “Type the URL in the address bar” just didn’t cut it. First off, she had no idea what an “URL” was. So I had to explain, “URL is the web page address for where you want to go. It’s the identifier of the web page.” Then I gave her an example, www.shoap.com. “The address bar is at the top of your web browser, normally white, and shows the web address.” Ok. So now she knows how to get from one web page to another. Recently, she wanted to upload photos from her camera to Walgreens so that she could make copies of those photographs as Christmas presents. This was a difficult predicament, as I had to direct her how to do this over the phone. She was able to upload the photos from her camera to the computer on her own, but moving them from the computer to the website was causing problems.
In this instance I was removed from the consumer. I had to anticipate that she would not be as familiar as I was with uploading pictures and navigating through the website. Fortunately, I’ve used the upload procedure on the website before, so I was familiar with how it works, (step one complete!). Now I have to properly explain it to my mother, someone unfamiliar with the process (step two complete!), in a precise, easy-to-understand manner without oversimplifying: What I did for my mother was basically a walkthrough. I was on the phone with her, telling her what to do as I was also going through the process to make sure it was accurate. First, she had to open the web browser, (I advised her not to use Internet Explorer, but Mozilla Firefox, instead). She brings the browser up and I ask her to type in the address: www.walgreens.com into the address bar located at the top of the browser. We magically portal over to the website through the internet, and we are faced with the Walgreens’ home page. I ask her to click on the photo icon at the top of the page, which she does. She then has to log in; she already has a username and password, so she does that. Now we have a slight problem.
It appears that my mother’s web browser version is outdated and does not have the latest version of Flashplayer. My web browser is perfectly fine, so I have to walk her through updating Firefox. I search for “Adobe Flashplayer” in my search bar and come up with http://get.adobe.com/flashplayer/. I have to relay this to my mother, so I tell her to go to the address bar, delete the current address, and type the above mentioned URL. She does so, and it takes her to the installation page. I ask her to uncheck the McAfee Security Scan and click the yellow “agree and install now” button. I tell her to the save the file which pops up, and then the update downloads. I tell her to double-click on the install_flash_player.exe file, and the computer does its thing. But wait! We still have the Firefox program running! I ask her to close the browser by clicking the red X in the right hand corner, and then double-click the install file. The installation is successful; we close the dialogue box, and restart Firefox. We go back to walgreens.com, click the photo icon and she logs in again. Now I direct her to look for the “Get Started!” header in orange, and click on the “upload photos” text beneath it in blue. She does that and it brings up a pop-up for her to add to a new album or add to an existing album; she decides to add to a new album and names it. Then I ask her to click on the blue, “select photos” button on the bottom right. After that, she is taken to a folder to select photos. The folder is not the one she wants!
Now I have to walk her through changing the file path so that she can get to the folder which has the photos she wants to upload. I ask her if she sees the dialogue box that says, “Select file(s) to upload…” and she affirms. I tell her to go to the “look in:” area at the top of the box and click on the drop down menu. At this point, I’m not sure where she stored her photos, but I have a good idea: I tell her to click on the “My Documents” folder in the menu, and then click on the “My Pictures” folder in the box showing a lot of different folders. She then recognizes the title for her album, clicks on it, and sees the pictures she wants. Now I tell her to position her mouse in the white space above and slightly to the left of the first picture, hold the mouse, and move it to the bottom corner of the last picture she wants to select. I have to tell her this because Walgreens does not have a check mark option to select multiple photos, and it must be done in the drag-highlight method. After the photos are highlighted, I tell her to click the “Open” button, and the website automatically begins uploading each picture. Once all of the photos are marked “Done” the web page moves to a screen saying, “Your photos have been uploaded! What would you like to do next?” I tell her to click the “Order Prints” button, and follow the steps Walgreens provides from there.
The steps on the Walgreens photo uploading site are fairly good, especially since they anticipate the needs of consumers and alert them to things that will happen next, such as the “Order Prints” page. It reads, “Select the album with the photos you’d like to print. You’ll choose quantities and sizes on the next page. Need help?” And then directs consumers to click the photos they want to order, which conveniently show up in a side bar apart from the bulk of the album.
So how does this tie in to large-scale, profitable technical documentation for companies, and useful, instructional material for consumers? I’ve just demonstrated that while you should never patronize the consumer and oversimplify directions, you have to be aware of who your audience is when constructing and presenting technical documentation, training, or instructional material. This almost always means that you are going to have to explain methods in a simpler, yet thorough process.
My earliest recollection of instructional material came from second grade when we were asked to write instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I couldn’t believe my luck at the simplicity of the assignment! I initially wrote: put peanut butter on bread, put jelly on bread, and cover with second slice of bread. This was apparently wrong to my teacher. Why? Well, I had left a lot of things out. For example, where did I get the peanut butter and jelly? How did I get the peanut butter and jelly out of the jars? What did I use to put the peanut butter and jelly on the bread? “Well that’s stupid!” I said. “Everyone knows you have to open the jar, get a butter knife and put it in the jar to get the peanut butter and jelly, and then spread the peanut butter and jelly on the first slice of bread!”
Well, that’s probably true, people know how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and lots of things can be inferred, but when they are first taught, they have to be precise, step-by-step instructions, considering that the reader may never have done such a thing before. The peanut butter and jelly story is extreme, but if I had simply told my mother, “Go to walgreens.com, pick the photos you want and upload them, and then choose how many of what photo you want to order,” she wouldn’t have been any better off than when she first asked me for my help. In this way, technical documentation should be viewed as a communication meant to help others and educate them with precise, clear, and easily understandable instructions. I walked my mother through a – to her – complicated process, using precise instructions and minimal technical jargon. Any technical references I made, I explained in more familiar language. Overall, technical writers need to take into consideration who is reading the document, and what they are going to have questions about so that consumers can relate to their instructions and have a more enjoyable, and understandable experience with the product.