TechWhirl (TECHWR-L) is a resource for technical writing and technical communications professionals of all experience levels and in all industries to share their experiences and acquire information.
For two decades, technical communicators have turned to TechWhirl to ask and answer questions about the always-changing world of technical communications, such as tools, skills, career paths, methodologies, and emerging industries. The TechWhirl Archives and magazine, created for, by and about technical writers, offer a wealth of knowledge to everyone with an interest in any aspect of technical communications.
> I cite these examples to make the point that books are not *inherently*
> better at orienting the user. It's a design issue. ...RM
We just went through a humbling exercise with one of the user groups at
Syntex. For one project, we've managed to create (against incredible odds)
a user guide, a set of training exercises and a training database, a Help
system for the PC, one for the Mac, and a series of presentations that explain
the system to a variety of audiences who all want different information. The
members of this group were not allowed to get the software installed on their
desktop until they went through the training class.
I was finally allowed to ask this user group (six people in all) how they
preferred to use the materials they had. None had even opened the User Guide;
therefore none had discovered the QuickRef card stuck inside the front cover,
even though it was demonstrated in their training class. Only one of the six
referred to his marked up copy of the Training Exercises after the class. Most
did not even know of the existence of the online Help system, despite their
having done an exercise in the Training that was specifically about the Help
I don't feel particularly threatened by this. In fact, I predicted that
something like this would happen. For one, the FDA requires that any software
used in the process of clinical research has to have acceptable user docs; for
another, the documentation had to be in big binders, with copy done on a
Docutech in order to keep costs down. But what surprises me is that, even
with that much support, the users didn't use what they had. (They also have
a hot line to the project manager any time they need help.)
So this has raised a number of questions in my mind, most having to do with
how people use the tools available to them. They can gripe and moan about
useless manuals, and techies in the field can point to the latest in online
technology as a means of getting information, but I wonder if these aren't all
somewhat irrelevant. What do you do if your (extremely intelligent but
incredibly busy) user community won't use the tools available, and the program
itself isn't particularly intuitive? What to you do about the basic problem
of overload? Documentation - whether paper or online - can only do so much.