Last Sunday, Tom Johnson tweeted an interesting question: What’s your biggest tip for documentation usability? Seeing as how I was deep in writing a bunch of things, I didn’t see that until late in the day. By then, a few people replied.
Looking at those replies, I thought Yeah, that’s what I would have said. In fact, those answers — especially that documentation should about specific tasks that users want to carry out — mesh well with the documentation philosophy that Aaron and I try to follow. And which we looked at in our presentation at DocTrain West 2009.
Then, I thought back to the presentation and another answer to that question came to mind. That answer:
Remove any material that disrupts the main flow of the documentation, and then give them quick, easy access to it
Therein lies the problem, though. Where do you put that information, and how do you give users access to it? Aaron and I usually advocate:
- Using popups or mouseovers to define terms or present extra background information
- Put the information somewhere else, like a supplementary help file, or on a wiki or a blog
That works well if you’re delivering documentation in electronic format — over the Web or as a PDF. But what about printed manuals? Believe it or not, there are more than just a few shops that still deliver documentation as dead trees.
So, what’s the solution? There really isn’t one. Aaron and I sometimes suggest putting all of the overview information upfront. Then, use cross references in the chapters that cover the actual procedures. Unfortunately, though, this doesn’t always work. We’ve found that in a few instances, we’ve had to go back to doing things the way they were done in the past in order for a printed manual to properly flow. Thankfully, not often. But often enough.
Do you work with documentation that will be primarily delivered in print? If so, what’s your biggest usability challenge? Feel free to leave a comment.