Should you restrict access to your product documentation?
Reasons to Protect your Product Documentation
One of the primary questions we get when customers are setting up a new documentation site is "How do I protect my documentation?"
These customers want to create great documentation for their customers but they want to keep other parties from viewing that documentation. In most cases they are concerned about their competitors accessing their documentation.
There are times when this is necessary, but I think that too often customers "assume" that they need to protect their documentation when that may not be the best approach.
As in every decision we make in life, there are tradeoffs. My purpose in this article is to make sure that you do two things:
- You consider all of the tradeoffs that you are going to make by restricting access to the documentation.
- You are realistic about the benefit you will receive by restricting access to your documentation.
The Benefits of Allowing Unrestricted Access to Your Documentation
There are two primary benefits your company will receive by opening up your documentation:
- People will be able to find answers in your documentation via Google.
- Your customers will not encounter any friction when they are trying to access your documentation.
Finding Answers via Google
Google is how your customers find answers to everything else on the internet. It is most likely the first place they will go to when they want answers about your product. If your documentation is available on the internet then they will be able to find it quickly and without much hassle. That is better for them and better for your support team since the documentation will help deflect a certain number of support requests.
If you documentation doesn't require a login then your users won't encounter any friction when they attempt to use your documentation. They won't have to worry about forgotten usernames or lost passwords. If they need someone else to help them understand how to implement something they can easily point them to the documentation they are referencing. The lower the friction the more usage your documentation will receive.
The Downside of Allowing Unrestricted Access to your Product Documentation
The primary downside of opening up your documentation is that your competitors, or potential competitors, will have access to your product documentation. Many teams fear that this will make it too simple for their competitors to copy key aspects of their product and, at the least, create similar features in a competing product or, at worst, steal key intelectual property.
What should you do?
My advice for product documentation is almost always to keep it open. I believe that the benefits of making it easier for your customers and *potential* customers to access your documentation far outweigh the potential downside.
There may be times when you really do need to lock down your documentation as best you can, but don't just assume that that is always the best approach. Weigh the pros and cons and make a decision that is going to be best for your particular product.