Content Strategy: How Long is This Gonna Take?

It’s the very end of the month (a leap month, no less! I had an extra day!) and I’ve got a cou­ple of projects I want to post about, but they’re still in progress. So, instead of some per­son­al cre­ative or DIY stuff, I want­ed to post about some­thing more work-relat­ed for me. From the very begin­ning of my work as a tech­ni­cal writer, I described my approach to how I see my doc­u­men­ta­tion work being used as fol­lows:

  1. Imme­di­ate: tool tip, pop-ups, hov­er info in your IDE. 
  2. Quick answer: F1 on what a dia­log field val­ues are or a function/method
  3. Long answer: search the docs and poke around until I find my answer
  4. Learn­ing: Inten­tion­al read­ing, in the order pre­sent­ed, if the doc­u­men­ta­tion

Lev­els 0 & 1 both start in soft­ware or code and end there. This has the least and next-to-least inter­rup­tion to your work. The answer is imme­di­ate­ly when you need it or just a click & scroll away.

Lev­el 2 is often back and forth between docs and soft­ware. This inher­ent­ly can feel tedious. Often, this results in not even find­ing what you need (unless you were look­ing for frus­tra­tion). Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this is also where a lot of prod­uct help leaves you.

Lev­el 3 is sole­ly in the docs. You’re no longer per­form­ing your pri­ma­ry goal or job func­tion. This was not so com­mon for new employ­ees or employ­ees who just got a new tool in the work­place at one time. It feels like a rare lux­u­ry today, though. Too many work­places pri­or­i­tize keep­ing pro­duc­tive day-to-day over mak­ing their employ­ees pro­duc­tive in the longer term.

So, what’s the point? Lev­el 0 & 1 should be the goals, but they require sig­nif­i­cant more plan­ning and coor­di­na­tion with prod­uct devel­op­ers and UX design­ers. And, if we’re being hon­est, mak­ing Lev­el 2 work effec­tive­ly is going to require some of the same. And if you’re writ­ing man­u­als like any­one has the time for Lev­el 3, you’re shoot­ing your­self in the foot for all of the oth­er cas­es.

Think Inside the Box

I saw this video today demo­ing a very inter­est­ing user man­u­al con­cept. Essen­tial­ly, the man­u­al wraps around a device with queues to manip­u­late the actu­al device, rather than some screen­shots or pho­tos. Basi­cal­ly the man­u­al is more of a phys­i­cal tem­plate (or jig, since I’m using tem­plate in the crafts­man sense).

Out of the box from Vit­a­mins on Vimeo.

How­ev­er, I can’t think of a worse device to apply this idea to than a touch­screen smart­phone.

Let me explain: I’ve been using an Apple iPhone for about the past four years now1. As much as I ini­tial­ly opposed the idea, Apple was cor­rect in tak­ing things like the SIM card and phone bat­tery out of the hands of the user2. It’s a far supe­ri­or user expe­ri­ence to design those out of the expe­ri­ence all togeth­er, in my opin­ion. That being said, if you’re going to force your user into awk­ward set-up neces­si­ties, this is about as pain­less a way to do it as pos­si­ble. I can image some lay­ered gad­get pack­ag­ing where each sec­tion the user opens, they are pre­sent­ed with the next step in set­up or assem­bly (would work great for Ikea prod­ucts, too!).

Now, as for instruct­ing the user how to do any­thing on the phone: with a gen­er­ous sized touch screen, there’s sim­ply no rea­son why all of these instruc­tions can’t just present them­selves on the screen. My favorite apps on th the iPhone are those where the instruc­tions appear as modal dialogs point­ing to the most-used fea­tures. Add’l help can get includ­ed to, but the top two or three tools are called out as soon as the app launch­es, mak­ing any user almost instant­ly pro­fi­cient.

So, as much as I like this con­cept, I’d much rather see all of this inside the box—er, phone—than in some bulky, phys­i­cal thing that isn’t going to be with you at all times.

In short: I think the man­u­al for a smart phone should sim­ply be one short sen­tence: Push the pow­er but­ton.

Via Johne Cook, by way of Bill Swal­low & Ray Gal­lon

  1. Yes, this is the part where I start com­ing off as an Apple fan boy, but bear with me… it applies to any smart­phone or oth­er touch-screen device []
  2. Sure, you can still get to the SIM card on an iPhone, but com­pared to any oth­er phone, it holds vir­tu­al­ly no data beyond the user’s account cre­den­tials or phone num­ber. []