The State of Documentation, Part 1
By Bonnie Roskes, P.E., October 14, 2002
This is the first article in a three-part series on CAD software documentation and training materials. This is a topic rarely covered in any publication, but it is one that affects nearly everyone in the CAD industry - those who use CAD software, those who make CAD software purchasing decisions, and those who produce CAD software.
Why Improve Documentation?
If you read most of the industry magazines and trade journals, as I do, you can probably count on one hand the number of times you’ve seen an article or review that gives more than a passing mention to CAD software documentation. Not much attention is paid to the manuals, online help, getting started guides, tutorials, etc. that accompany most applications. Now and then good documentation is credited for lowering the learning curve, and bad documentation is blamed when commands are hard to use. Software firms in non-English-speaking countries are sometimes cited for providing unreadable documentation. But, as a rule, documentation is ignored altogether.
This is representative of the attitude of the software industry itself. When firms have money (a rarity these days, but not so in the recent past), R&D is beefed up, new product lines are introduced, slick ads and fancy websites are created. When money is tight, firms narrow their focus to basic updates and bug fixes. In either case, documentation is rarely targeted as an area to be expanded or improved upon.
Software is only as good as the ability of its users to use it. Even the most advanced applications are unusable for most of the CAD population, if no explanation is provided about how to use them. Naturally, there are always those who can learn anything simply by installing and playing around, but the vast majority of software users need a bit more guidance.
Providing good manuals, help, and tutorials sends a message to users that the software company cares about them. Marketing staff treats potential customers like royalty before a sale, but once money changes hands the buyer is sometimes left in the dust with a CD, a thin and often-useless book, and the feeling that he is on his own. Tech support is always an option, but it often costs money (requiring a service agreement or fee per call) and nobody really wants to waste time on the phone having someone explain the basics.
When a manual, online help, or tutorial is comprehensive and easy to use, when it’s easy for the user to quickly find the exact piece of needed information, it becomes clear that user questions were anticipated and addressed. Good documentation impresses customers almost as much as the software itself. It helps maintain current customer base, and can also attract new customers - when evaluating similar applications, all else being equal, you’re going to go with whoever has the better user manual.
When good documentation is available, fewer calls flow in to tech support. Those who field support calls and emails often ask, “did you try to find this in the manual?” “Did you watch the demo?” “Did you go through the tutorial?” Often the answer is, “yes, but I still couldn’t find what I need.” If the needed information is not immediately available, most people will pick up the phone and ask a human. (Of course, there are always those who don’t ever bother to open the manual, who call tech support no matter what.) So while support departments will always be needed, they would be less taxed if documentation were improved. (And when this happens, the once-busy support staff who are now twiddling their thumbs can start pitching in creating tutorials or training exercises!)
Many companies aren’t even aware of the documentation problem. Manuals are produced and distributed, but how they are received doesn’t often trickle back up to management. Sometimes the same useless and clunky reference manuals are produced version after version, with no attention paid to the fact that the books go straight to the shelves and their shrink-wrap never comes off. Sales teams are always eager to for feedback on how to improve the software itself to generate more customers, but feedback is rarely requested, or given, about documentation.
There is only way to really know what users want in a manual or tutorial, and it’s quite simple. Ask them. Most would be happy (and amused) to admit they never read the books, and would give suggestions on what kind of book or training materials they would find useful. Feedback forms are one way to get this information. Specific feedback questions can be listed on a mail-in card inserted into a printed manual or a CD, or on a web survey accessed from the tech support page. Unfortunately, while they are the most direct way to get answers, feedback forms rarely reflect the entire spectrum of users, since the vast majority never bothers with them. But there are other ways to put one’s ear to the ground. Marketing or support people can ask users about documentation during site visits. Management can open wider channels with VAR’s about user feedback. Beta testers can become involved in the development and checking of documentation, in addition to helping develop and test the product itself.
A few questions can yield a wealth of information that will leave little doubt about the level of documentation sought by users.
In the next article, I will focus on reasons why documentation is sometimes so inadequate. I welcome any comments; contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.