DIY

Are we giving the right kind of support to end users?

Sometimes we need a bit of help from the manual but what if, in addition to failing to understand the technology, we have trouble understanding the instructions as well? It would be nice to be able to get the best from our gadgets.

This year’s hobby horse seems to be documentation again. Have you ever wondered why so many people either fail to fully exploit their technology or spend excessive amounts of time trying to find support from user forums? Here’s an example of how I am going to put the world to rights this year.

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For Christmas I was given a USB adapter that allows me to plug my electric guitar into my PC so that not only can I use the PC sound system to play through but I also have the opportunity to record multi-track music direct to my hard drive, a most impressive piece of kit but not the easiest thing to configure.

The manual was well written in real English, not just badly translated from Cantonese, which was a great bonus. However, sadly it was written to a more technical level than I am used to. For one thing, it went on at great length about latency. What was much harder for a relatively nontechnical musician such as myself was finding a definition of latency and how to deal with it.

Finally, I discovered that the constant reverberation I was experiencing was latency, a by-product of the limited capability of my on-board sound card, and I resolved to recover my old sound card, which was in my old PC under the bench until I loaned it to a friend just a week or two ago! He is planning to get a better card, and when he returns it, I will fit it.

My gripe isn’t with the product but with the documentation that has been produced. It wasn't compiled by a writer but seemingly by someone who was very involved in the technical side of the product and rather less concerned with the human side of it.

All technology suffers from this to a certain extent. I feel that there is a place for a nontechnical writer to get involved in producing good quality documentation that is geared toward the end user. Getting a writer who is not involved in the product to write the manual will avoid the pitfall that is so common with so many manuals, which is that they are written from the wrong starting point, namely from the viewpoint of somebody who is already au fait with the equipment and not someone who has never seen the equipment before.

Perhaps there is a career opportunity for a writer who can write but has an average level of technical skill, who could liaise with a manufacturer and put the awkward stuff into plain language.

4 comments
R-T-F-M
R-T-F-M

A skilled technical writer takes the information from the subject matter experts and renders it in the context of the average user. When documentation is originated by an engineer or a programmer, they often assume that all users will have their background knowledge and will naturally know the steps they don't write down or will understand the technical jargon the insiders use. It's my job to ferret out those nit-picky little details and get them into the documentation for the folks who need them.

mgnl
mgnl

I whole heartedly agree. That is something I have to keep reminding myself when writing things for customers, keep it simple and on their level.

mike
mike

"Perhaps there is a career opportunity for a writer who can write but has an average level of technical skill, who could liaise with a manufacturer and put the awkward stuff into plain language." Many years ago, I purchased a router that was made by a major international manufacturer. I spent an unproductive weekend trying to set up the router. On Monday, I phoned the support desk. The support person was very helpful. He told me that the manual was wrong, and he told me what to do to set up the router. Because of the incorrect documentation, that company cost me the best part of a weekend. I did as you suggest. I contacted the company to show them the benefits of clear documentation. Were they interested? No. Some companies see documentation as a cost. They skimp, and they use non-professionals to produce documentation. However, some companies realise the benefits of clear documentation, and they pay professional technical communicators (technical writers). Sometimes, those technical communicators are employees, and sometimes, they are freelancers. So, yes, there are career opportunities for professional technical communicators. If you want to find a freelance technical communicator, use one of the following websites. * www.writersua.com/rescontr.htm for technical communicators around the world * www.qualityauthors.co.uk for technical communicators in the UK.

dennisg
dennisg

Some of these companies outsource things like the documentation and do so before they know the level of language skills these places have. Another issue is that they don't communicate to these places about the target market they are trying to reach, so the terminology may be way off and not helpfull at all.