Product Documentation: Does it really help?

product documentation

“Why should I read the product documentation?”

Let’s be honest:  Have you ever read product documentation, for example the instructions manual when starting with a new TV, a new game, or new software?

Personally, I don’t know anyone who reads the manual before diving into the unknown. In an ideal world, you expect that you will NOT need the doc. You expect the menus will be intuitive enough. And, indeed, with a bit of luck, you can go on quite far before getting stuck.

Unfortunately, someday you may face an issue, don’t worry, it happens to everyone. This is the time when you frantically look for salvation in any kind of text help.  The last resort will be to call Customer Support, but this is the last thing that you want to do.

Whatever the product, users often have varied backgrounds. They have different usage, expectations, and habits; they don’t need the same information at the same time and with the same detail. Therefore, managing product documentation is not as easy as one could think.

Product doc is a product in itself

Writers do not make long enumerations of product features anymore (well, they should not). As for any “consumer product”, the doc follows marketing rules: Users expect to get the right guide at the right moment, at the right place, and with the expected quality. All of them are challenges. 

There is indeed an actual content strategy for user manuals and other help content:

  • Identify your user
  • Define your user’s goals
  • Create use cases for the product
  • Identify the correct delivery formats
  • Create content that is an appropriate scope and at the right level of detail.

Product knowledge is not enough. The content strategy requires knowing the audience as well.

Let’s consider the level of detail. Any user guide should be adapted to beginners, who will want to quickly use the main features of their new product, and to advanced users who want to make deep use of the product and make the best of it.

On many occasions, you need help in a precise use case (“Can I display this field in pink ?”). And you need an answer, now, easily, efficiently. You will not browse discouraging long pages.

In the end, the challenge is worth being considered: When you can’t find the information you need, or not fast enough, you may simply give up on the feature you wanted to use, or even more, abandon the whole product. As a mother of two teens, I must admit that without their help I may have never used my new smartphone…

Documentation 2.0: The doc is everywhere

So product documentation is still key in Product adoption. However, the formats have changed. Forget the 500 pages of user manuals. Keep the books for literature. The doc is more and more virtual. 

You seldom have thick manuals, they are replaced with a link to the provider’s website, even for your new vacuum cleaner. More and more the help text is online, and this enables it to be more contextual, right when and where you need it, and it can be translated on demand.

Recent technologies such as WalkMeTM and chatbots provide contextual tooltips and assistants. You benefit from new tools at your fingertip, focused on your current task, which makes any interface more intuitive and user-friendly.

Help content is even coming to you before you ask for it: You probably have seen a What’s new? window popping up when logging into your favorite website or app (and maybe more often than you would like).

You just acknowledge and close the window. But the mission is accomplished. You know that with a click you will get help.

The doc is now like a good friend: Reliable but not cumbersome. “ I am here, just call me if you need anything”.

Juliette Bruneel
Juliette joined QAD DynaSys in 2013, as she wanted to expand her horizons after experiences in Supply Chain as Procurement Planner and Inventory manager (in mail-order then bakery supplies businesses). She currently coordinates the DSCP product documentation and training material, ranging from the presentation of new features to training guides, and the update of demo environments. Out of working hours, apart from managing her domestic Supply Chain as a mother of two teens, she spends her spare time playing the clarinet with the village orchestra and looking for ideas around zero waste and upcycling (such as making handbags from soda pop tabs).