5 User documentation pitfalls (and how to avoid them)

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You’ve launched a new product. From design and development to manufacturing and marketing, you put a ton of effort in to make sure everything’s covered. Unfortunately, support calls and returns are high while customer ratings are low. Your user documentation doesn’t seem to help. What’s going on?

Good user documentation doesn’t just happen – It requires a unique skillset and relentless drive to help customers. It’s a complex process and there are many places where the ball may have been dropped. Let’s start by looking at some common pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Writing without a plan
    Let’s be honest with ourselves – if customers are reading the manual, they’re probably already frustrated. Well thought-out documentation, based on a solid content strategy, helps reduce frustration and can turn around a poor customer experience, restore brand image, and bolster customer faith in your product. Take a step back and think about the use cases for your product – is everything documented? What is the most logical way to organize information for customers? How will they find what they need (e.g. table of contents, search, or cross-references)? Use your documentation as an opportunity to “wow” customers and reinforce their purchase decision.
  2. Not writing to your audience
    Our communication style naturally changes throughout the day. We typically talk to a young child differently than an adult. Or, you would probably explain the solution to a computer problem differently to a colleague than your 97-year-old grandma. User documentation should be no different. Knowing who your audience is and what they need is key to effective communication.
  3. Not using the right mediums
    Let’s break the stereotype up front that user documentation is just a folded piece of paper stuffed in a box. Think about your audience. Who are they and how do they prefer to access information? Do they need an HTML manual? Should social media be used for discussion or problem solving? Will it be viewed on a mobile device? Would a video or animated graphic help? Maybe all you need is a plastic cling attached to the product itself. Documentation should have your customers’ best interests at heart.
  4. Not proof-reading documentation
    This one’s a no-brainer. Taking the time for a thorough edit, both first-hand and by an objective party, shows your customers that you care about your brand and quality. A final validation against the product also ensures that the information is correct.
  5. Using documentation as a “fix-all”
    You can spend hours developing content to explain something. But, at the end of the day, the best way to prevent support calls and returns is to make sure that your product is intuitively designed for your customers. Enlist the expertise of a usability specialist during product development to avoid customer pain points before they happen. Make sure that they’re involved in creating documentation as well to help anticipate possible user problems.

When things go wrong, most customers will try to troubleshoot themselves. If they can’t figure it out, they’re forced to call support or will return the product. This expense eats into your profit. Documentation may seem expensive up front, but it is an investment that will save money and improve your customer experience.

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