When it comes to doing something right, sometimes it helps to see common mistakes others make. So here are 14 examples of common mistakes you might be making (and yes, I even included a mistake we made in our own documentation).
You'll notice that none of it is internal documentation - unfortunately, organizations aren't keen on letting me see internal procedures. But the lessons we can learn from software documentation are definitely applicable to how you create your organization's internal documentation as well.
I should also note the companies that are featured below (save one), for the most part, have good documentation - I just highlight a few tweaks that could be made to make it great documentation.
1 - No Documentation
The first example is that of not having any documentation. I purchased this great software, and I like it very much, but I was surprised to find it does not actually have documentation - rather, it has a fairly simple FAQ. If I want answers, I have to send an email.
Even if the product is simple to use, I'm sure there are features, possible workflows, and time savers that I can't quickly learn about because there is no documentation to browse.
If you want to be overwhelmed with email, make sure to provide little to no documentation, and then include an invitation to email you with questions.
2 - No pictures
Here are a series of instructions that were written out. It probably would have been easier to just take a screenshot instead of typing out, "Click on the button at the bottom with the gear icon and the downards-pointing arrow next to it, and select 'Apply to enclosed items...'"
Following on-screen processes from a written description is not easy - so don't make your end-users do it.
3 - Difficult to browse
Several help desk ticketing services provide an online knowledge base option, and for the most part they are pretty good. But if you have a lot of documentation, it becomes very difficult to browse the knowledge base.
Making your documentation easy to browse might not seem like a big deal if your knowledge base has great search capabilities; however, your end-users like to see a menu of options they can choose from if they are unfamiliar with what's possible.
4 - Bad titles
Article titles are supposed to make it easy to quickly scan a page and find what end-users want. In this example below, it's difficult to scan the options because they all start with a common name that doesn't really mean anything - "Camtasia Studio."
A better naming convention would be to ask a question that end-users ask, and title your article with that question (or use the name of a workflow). Whatever you decide, make sure it's specific and descriptive so end-users know the question that the article will be answering, and can find it easily while browsing your knowledge base.
5 - Communities gone awry
Communities have their place, and it's great to get the collective knowledge of everyday users - but they are also open to ranting. The back and forth discussions about who is right and who is wrong make it really difficult for end-users to find the answer they are looking for.
Take advantage of collective knowledge, but make sure to monitor responses and delete anything that takes away from the purpose of your knowledge base.
6 - Make them download something
Having to download a PDF is no good. It adds an extra step before end-users can find an answer to their questions, and it's difficult for you to reuse - instead of sending somebody a link to the exact answer, you have to say, "Look on page 75 of the PDF manual."
Plus, if an end-user downloads a PDF and refers to it, they may not see any updates to your workflows or policies because they are referring to an outdated version. If everybody wants a PDF, then provide them with the option - but don't make it the only option.
7 - Inconvenient location
Okay, so this isn't an example of bad software documentation, but it's still a great example. This is my apartment complex, and it has terrible documentation for visitors. If you are visiting me, your GPS will take you to this entrance; however, you cannot actually get in from this entrance as a visitor. There is a sign that tells you this, but it's in a terrible location.
Almost everyday I drive home, I see a perplexed visitor waiting for something to happen because they don't see the sign.
When somebody drives up to the gate, they are not looking for instructions until they get stuck. When they are stuck, the picture above is what they see - nothing about going around to another entrance. The sign telling them that important detail is behind them and out of view. I always have to roll down my window and explain how to enter the complex.
The same goes for your end-users - they aren't looking for instructions until they get stuck. If you make those instructions hard to find during their time of need, they will be perplexed, and wait for somebody to tell them what to do. Put your documentation where your end-users need it.
8 - Only use video
Videos are nice for explaining something for the first time and providing an introduction, but end-users don't like referencing a video when they simply forgot which button to push.
To the credit of the example above, they did provide some text documentation as well, but unfortunately it was locked up as a PDF. Instead, check out how a company named Wistia does their help site - they have a video up top that does a walkthrough, and then they have step by step instructions below for quick referencing later on. The videos and instructions are all in one convenient location (easy to do with ScreenSteps).
9 - Overview screenshots
Most people fail to produce great documentation because they think it's necessary to do overview screenshots of every possible window - but that's just overkill. Yes, these screenshots might be helpful 5% of the time, but your documentation does not need them.
Remember, end-users aren't going to sit down with your documentation and read it like a novel. Documentation is referenced when people get stuck or have a question. Instead of doing overview explanations, just answer simple questions and document very specific workflows - that kind of documentation is the most helpful.
10 - List of all possible actions
Similar to #9 above, this suffers the same consequence - an image that looks more like an octopus than anything helpful.
Again, this style of documentation assumes that end-users are reading everything you write. But that's not the case, they just want an answer to a specific question. So, one way to break this image up is to answer each individual question in a separate article:
- How do I display as a thumbnail?
- How do I display as a list?
- How can I zoom in and out?
- How can I import media files?
Unique articles that answer each of those questions will be much more helpful than screenshots saying, "Here's how you do everything!"
11 - Not linking to a referenced process
In this article, it says to make sure I have created an export file and correctly prepared my data... but then it leaves me hanging.
At the very bottom of the article there is a link under "See Also:" but readers (like myself) may not get to the bottom of the article to see the link - they will drop everything and do a search for creating an export file and preparing their data. Make life easier by including links to referenced processes.
12 - Skip a step (even a minor one)
When I first read the instructions below as a new Admin, it took me a while to find where Data Management was located.
This could have been resolved by including "From Setup, under the Administrator section, click on Data Management | Import..." (the same result could be reached by just providing a screenshot). Don't make your end-users hunt around their screen looking for what you are describing because you skipped a step. For new users, each step is important.
13 - Outdated documentation
This is actually an example from our knowledge base (gasp!). Last week, our developer added a button to the interface, but our documentation didn't show that (as of this screenshot).
Fortunately, for all of our users, I just went in and replaced the image with an accurate screenshot - crisis averted. But still, the crime of outdated documentation is serious. Outdated documentation is very frustrating to end-users.
14 - No Search
Not being able to enter a search term was pretty frustrating (at least, I didn't see a place to enter the keyword).
Make it as easy as possible for your end-users to find an answer on their own, and I guarantee that they will begin to be self-sufficient.
What if people don't follow directions?
If end-users aren't following directions, check your documentation.
Maybe it's hard to follow. Maybe it's in a bad location and difficult to find. Good documentation can go a long way to improving software usage.