Do your readers complain about not being able to find what they need to get their job done? Even though the content is right there in the manual? Here are a few ideas for helping your readers locate what they need within your documentation structures:
Try it Yourself
Becomes the “first customer” by running through the software/process you are describing yourself. It’s amazing how many potential issues you can find and questions you’ll locate. This will help place you in the mind of the reader and know where you should put content in your documentation structure, so it appears in the right place.
Use Parallel Terminology
Customers usually start searching for help using the same terminology and process flow as appears on the user interface. Try to make sure that you use the same flow and terminology so that when your customer starts searching, they’ll immediately draw parallels and feel comfortable.
Don’t flood the reader with too much data early on. Slice up content so that it’s task-focused and slowly expands on more detailed ideas and processes. Try to stifle the urge to give all the information to the customer at once.
Look for the High-Level Use Cases
Is there a natural split in the use-cases for your documentation? Maybe you have some documents for setting up the software and others for daily operation of the software. These are likely to have different readers, and so, not only could you place them in different high-level structures you can also pitch the tone of the documents differently. For example, you might have a “working with X” structure and a “configuring X” structure. The former would target day to day users while the latter might have a more technical tone and target consultants.
Give your readers a map!
Paper manuals usually have tables of contents, but the nature of online documentation means that the structure itself often replaces a table of contents. Still, it doesn’t hurt to include a document or interactive graphic that points your customer to the right place.
Multimedia can be a powerful tool for overviews and orientation to a topic. The combination of screen captures, animation, and voice really helps improve general understanding. It’s also a great way to introduce written documents and point the way to further detailed reading.
Over to You
What do you think? Did we miss something? Do you have a great tip for helping your readers find what they’re looking for? Let us know in the comments below; we’d love to hear from you!