User help WINS and FAILS

When I worked at IBM, there was a little running joke on our tech writing team that technical writers seemed to be the last people who actually pick up documentation and read it. I admit that there are times when I’ve just tried to tinker my way through a task rather than pick up the help. Maybe that’s because technical writers are actually pretty good at tinkering. Isn’t that part of the job after all–to tinker with stuff and then write usable instructions for others to follow?

That may well be the case, but in recent months, I’ve made it a point to pay more attention to the documentation and help material that comes with the stuff that I use, and it’s been very illuminating. If there is anything a technical writer should do, it is to use the help materials that others have produced to try to mine good ideas.

I’ve decided that I’m going to start a series on this blog where I will document times that I use help material, state whether it helped or not, and try to analyze why or why not. (This may also be a great opportunity for guest posts). In highly creative fashion, I will call these “User Help WINS” and “User Help FAILS.”

Hopefully, over the course of time, we will uncover some trends that help illuminate what makes documentation work.

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