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How to figure out why people don't use your documentation

People often tell us that they have several hundred pages of documentation already written. They want to talk to us about importing it into ScreenSteps Live. The first question we ask them is, "Is anyone reading it?"

More often than not, the answer is "no." If no one is using your documentation, simply importing it into a new product isn't going to do you much good. You need to first understand why people aren't using your docs.

If you find yourself with a ton of documentation that no one is reading then here is a simple self-assessment you can perform to determine what you need to do.

Is your documentation in the wrong delivery format?

If your documentation is in a PDF or Word file stored on your company intranet then you probably aren't going to get a lot of use out of it. It doesn't matter how great your docs are. Most people will not go through the effort of:

  • Finding where the PDF file is stored
  • Downloading it
  • Opening it up and searching through it for the answer to their question

If you want your documentation to get more use then you need to deliver it through the web. You may choose to use PDF or Word files as an additional delivery format. But your primary delivery format should be the web.

Is your documentation globbed together?

I see a lot of people that create really long help documents. They are forgetting Newton's first law of help docs, "documentation is referenced, not read." People don't read documentation, they reference it when they get stuck. If you glob all of your help topics onto one giant page people are going to find it hard to use.

Your help docs should consist of many small, focused articles. For more info, see the article, "Connect with velcro, not cement."

Does your documentation talk about how things work instead of how to get things done?

A lot of documentation talks about how things work. This isn't nearly as useful as telling someone how to get things done. For example, a lot of docs will take an application and describe what all the buttons do. This isn't very useful. Your users want to get things done so you should write step-by-step procedures that help them accomplish tasks.

To put it more simply, document tasks, not features.

How did you do?

How did your documentation do in this self assessment? If it failed, then just moving to a new documentation product isn't going to help you. You need to revise your approach to documentation.

How to fix it

We talk to customers all the time that find themselves in this situation and the idea of rewriting a bunch of docs seems pretty depressing.

But those customers who adopt our "Plan not to Plan", approach to documentation and combine that with our ScreenSteps Live service find that they quickly create a lot of great documentation without a lot of effort. And most importantly, they find that people actually start using their documentation.

Even if you aren't going to use one of our products, start thinking about why people aren't using your docs and then take the necessary steps to fix the situation.

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