User guides: the Case of the Usable User Instructions

This "case" has many faces. All too frequently we come across software without usable user documentation. No documentation exists, or it isn't aimed at the end users, or it is incomplete. The result is always that people have to find out for themselves how the system works. In doing so, they waste vast amounts of time and effort without ever becoming truly productive.

What was achieved

Clear and complete documentation teaches the underlying logic to the system. Users learn the various ways in which the system makes their life easier. They are also aware of the things it cannot do for them. They waste less time and make fewer mistakes. When they do make a mistake, they get back on track without help from others. The Helpdesk is called only when real problems arise.

What it took

Usually all that is needed is some forethought and attention. If software engineers document their work as they go along, then producing the user documentation takes much less time and effort. New features and changes to the software can be quickly included in the documentation.

It does not always take a professional technical writer to produce a user manual. With a little instruction and explanation, and provided with clear and appropriate guidelines, testers or support staff (or even end users themselves) can produce just what is needed.