Stop Writing Manuals

No-one reads the documentation anyway, so why do we persist in writing user guides, instruction manuals and all the other types of document-centric information silos that we all quietly loathe creating in the first place?

Unless you have a contractual agreement to compile information into a document, it’s our job to figure out how best to get the right information to the user at the right time. It’s down to us, no-one else.

And I, for one, have failed to do my best, instead I’ve hidden behind the usual arguments of “ohh but that was how it was when I got here”, or “we don’t get to speak to our users so it’s hard to know what they want”.

OK, so I’m deliberately setting out a pretty bleak scenario here and, like everything, your own situation is probably not that dire, or is certainly further towards the ‘good’ end of a sliding scale.

However, the fact remains that a lot of thought and effort goes into creating content and perhaps not enough is placed on the delivery of said content. The mediums of the past are still valid but are increasingly being replaced and (and this is important) these new mediums are part of customer expectation.

I need look no further than myself to give you an example.

I am fairly careful with my money in that I tend to do a lot of research before buying a product. Whilst I have just purchased an iPhone, I didn’t buy the first version because my research suggested it would’ve been a mistake.

Part of my research is, quite simply, to see what kind of supporting information exists for the product I’m considering purchasing. Can I download or view the product documentation, and if so, what format is it in? What about user forums or support websites? Knowledge bases and articles? The latter are, increasingly, higher up my preference list than the former to the point where I’m pretty sure I’d buy if it had no user guide but a thriving user/support forum.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for our old friend, the product manual, but I would suggest it is under threat. Previously, to receive validated and trusted product information, I’d go to the product manual or support staff, anything that was produced by the people that make the product.


Now, thanks to reputation systems (points system that users build up the more the offer to, and interact with, a website) and the ability to cross-check information quickly and easily on the internet, I am far more likely to trust a post or article written by a complete stranger.

The wisdom of the crowd comes into play here of course, the more people that use your product the better the chance of a unique and useful scenario being documented and published, but there is no reason why we, the technical writers, cannot insert ourselves into that stream. Refocussing why we deliver information is a crucial part of the changes taking place in our industry.

Because, to be frank, if we don’t start looking around and changing how we work, we may soon be redundant. In every sense of the word.

Written By

Long time blogger, Father of Jack, geek of many things, random photographer and writer of nonsense.

Doing my best to find a balance.

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The opening sentence was deliberately provocative. I am just challenging people to consider their audience in more detail than accepting the status quo.


I fear you may be right.

There is some research going on at the Rensellaer Polytechnic Institute in the USA, sponsored by STC, about the way people look for product information. the research is ongoing, but early results indicate that searching the web for information is often seen as “more reliable” than searching the vendor’s web site or the help files supplied with the product.

If this is true then we – the tech writers employed by the vendors – need to find ways to change that view.


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