Why Good Technical Writing is Good Marketing

We’ve all experienced the manual from hell.

You might have in your hands the greatest piece of software, the most fetishistic piece of hardware, or maybe just a kid’s toy with “some assembly required”.

But the experience is ruined because the manual makes no sense.

Is there an excuse? No, there’s not.

There was a time when manuals had to be written up on typewriters or longhand, they had to be sent to a typesetter, professional illustrators were brought in, proofing and correction cycles were long and painful… but the job got done.

Now it’s easy. Digital cameras, Technical illustration in PhotoShop, 3D rendering from CAD, great page layout tools like Adobe InDesign, Acrobat PDFs, for proofing and electronic distribution, printing plants worldwide that can take PDFs and produce manuals locally… Even translation is easier than it has ever been.

The problem is most acute in small and medium-sized manufacturing firms. To maintain full-time staff to deal with these things is often a substantial financial burden. Many such firms actually develop their products in countries other than their end markets… so the engineers don’t even speak or write the language of the end customer, or don’t do so natively.

With the web, you’d think there would be an ongoing dialogue between manufacturer and user. Sure, many companies post their support phone numbers, but few actually provide ongoing guidance online, and many that do, do so inadequately. The long wait for support with most companies is a pretty good indicator that they are spending in support what they didn’t spend in documentation.

So why is it still a last minute effort by a low ranking engineer with no grammar skills and a complete unwillingness to use spell check? Why is there no user-testing? Why do the online help, the print manual, and the PDF on the provided CD all have inconsistent, often contradictory, always incomplete information?

The answer may differ between organizations, but it really comes down to a lack of commitment to end users. Many organizations isolate themselves from their users, putting the burden on retailers or their support staff, after the sale. There’s a booming aftermarket for manuals and magazines for most software products. All are indicators of a failure to communicate.

If you recognize this problem in your organization and would like help resolving it, contact me.

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