“This product is awful” usually means you can’t figure out how to use it

Documentation not only needs to educate your customers and provide on-the-spot troubleshooting assistance, but also can be used as a sales tool and a revenue generator. I’ve never been a fan of putting marketing-speak in technical documentation—that’s not what I mean by “sales tool.” What I’m saying is that providing good documentation allows prospective customers to more accurately ascertain whether your product meets their needs. With up-to-date online documentation, a prospective customer can quickly find the information he needs on his own. If your documentation doesn’t provide enough information, potential customers will find a vendor who does. A thoroughly documented product also gives the impression that the product is easier to use than your competitor’s, whose product documentation was written one Sunday morning by a developer needing to meet a release date. Good documentation before the sale gives the customer faith that the documentation after the sale will be as good. Companies that are consistently the winners in their industry care about educating their customers and prospective customers. Failure to properly document your product creates an opening for your competitor to capture that customer.

When someone says “this product is awful,” what they usually mean is that they can’t figure out how to use it. If they attempt to use poorly written documentation to figure it out, they are even more convinced that the product is bad. Good documentation results in happier, loyal customers and reduced customer support costs; customer support can spend more time providing higher value service and less time “hand holding” capable customers. Sure, good documentation can be expensive; but according to Forrester, the average call center call can cost a business as much as $50 per call. For technical issues, costs per support call can be as much as $150 per call. If customers can use the documentation or an online forum to solve their problems, the average cost is usually less than a dollar. In fact, Forrester’s research indicates that the average is about 10 cents per customer.

Most companies gather statistics on how many support calls are generated in a day. Based on the high volume of calls, they assume that the documentation is not being used. They fail to note how much customer support uses the documentation to help the customer. A large percentage of customers would rather call support, ask a specific question, and be told exactly what to do to fix their problem. This type of customer will never use the documentation unless they have to pay for phone support. Online help that allows the customer to provide feedback can provide statistics regarding not only how many people actually read that particular help topic, but also can tell you whether customers think the information is useful or a waste of their time. (Microsoft Support is a good example of this.) Product managers can use that feedback to improve the product and the documentation.

Some help documentation tools and formats allow for user feedback forms (“Web 2.0”), but having the ability to type comments into a form on a help topic is not enough. You also need a connection to a server that can store the feedback. With the right software, you can also view and print reports of which topics are used most often and what the comments are, which can tell product managers which areas of their application might need improvement to make it easier for users to understand.

Even though the products that I document use in-application help, I also provide online, web-based help. In that help, I could easily create a web form in which anyone who visits the topic could rate the topic and add comments that could improve the topic. Their comments would be visible to other users of the topic and, most importantly, to me. I could use their comments to improve the topic and the product manager could use their comments to improve the product. However, I don’t have the application that I need to manage the comments, store the comments, or report on the comments. Many companies won’t allow you to use a product that has a user feedback system or want to spend time creating their own automated user feedback system. So the best you can hope for is a user forum or a knowledgebase tool that allows user feedback, but that’s a manual system, doesn’t provide for reporting, and doesn’t tell you whether your help documentation is helpful or confusing.

One day, “Web 2.0” help with be the norm. For now, just keep plugging away at your help and hope that the feedback you do receive helps you improve your documentation.