Great Technical Writing: Make Your Product Fit

Great Technical Writing: Make Your Product Fit


Most product documentation sounds like their product is the only thing in the User’s life. Such thinking results in User confusion and dissatisfaction. This article presents three real-life examples of this attitude, and what should be done to remedy these unfortunate situations. The article concludes with some techniques for the writer.


There are two important facts that User Documentation ignores:

1. Your product is a only minor item in your User’s life

2. Your User Documentation must help fit your product into the User’s life

User Documentation that is written with awareness of these facts results in a better user experience. Here are three examples of where the writers (always incorrectly) thought that their product was the only thing in the User’s life.

EXAMPLE 1: Shoe Cleaner/Protector

Most people know about polishing and perhaps cleaning their leather shoes. This cleaner/protector product is meant to clean, protect and shine shoes. The instructions simply tell the User how to apply the product.

What the User is Used to: I polish my shoes with regular wax (or liquid) shoe polish.

The Problem: If a User wants to polish his/her shoes as well as use your cleaner/protector, then what order should the polish and the cleaner/protector be used? The instructions merely tell the User how to apply the cleaner/protector. It’s like the cleaner/protector is the only shoe product in existence.

Possible Solutions: The the cleaner/protector instructions could say (as appropriate):

* Use the cleaner/protector instead of your normal shoe polish.

* Use the cleaner/protector after you polish the shoes with your regular shoe polish.

* For a deluxe shoe treatment, use the cleaner/protector first on the shoes. Wait a few minutes, then wipe off any excess with a clean cloth. Then polish the shoes using your regular shoe polish, in the usual way. Finally, use the cleaner/protector again, but do not wipe it off.

These would make for much more effective instructions, and they could easily fit on the package.

EXAMPLE 2: DVD Player didn’t realize that I had a VCR

People buying a DVD player a few years ago were in the following situation. They had a VCR connected to the single video input of their TV. DVD players’ instructions described how to connect the player to a TV using a video input. The instructions ignored the situation of how to connect the player if there already was a VCR connected to the TV ‘s only video input.

What the User is Used to: The VCR is connected to the only video input of my old television.

The Problem: My new DVD player needs to be connected to the TV’s only video input. Do I have to buy a switch or manually switch the DVD player and VCR?

Solution: The writer should provide some tips or instructions how to set up the DVD player in the customer’s real-life situation. These instructions may include how to connect the DVD video through the VCR. Or connecting the DVD to the TV’s video input, and connecting the antenna of the VCR to the antenna input of the TV. Both devices can be connected with no need to buy additional parts. The instructions should mention how. It would improve the User’s experience in setting up the new device. (The instructions should also mention that these methods of connecting the devices would yield a less than optimal picture.)

EXAMPLE 3: A 2 in 1 Shampoo and Conditioner Product

A User normally shampoos his/her hair and then may use a separate conditioner product. He/she just purchased your product, a 2 in 1 shampoo and conditioner. It has no instructions.

What the User is Used to: A shampoo is used on the hair and immediately rinsed. A conditioner gets left in the hair for a few minutes, then rinsed.

The Problem: Does this 2 in 1 product get left in the hair, or does it get rinsed out immediately?

The Solution: Provide correct instructions on the package. Or, if it does not matter how long the 2 in 1 product gets left in the hair, then say so. Don’t leave the User guessing. If the User wanted to guess about something, then they would be reading a novel, not your User Documentation.

BOTTOM LINE: What to Do for Your Documentation

Examine your product in the light of how it will change the way that the User currently does things. How will it fit into the User’s life? How does the product fit with other products your User employs?

Make sure that your User Documentation helps the User to effectively fit the product into his/her life. By ignoring the reality of your User’s situation, you are forcing him/her to solve problems that you could easily solve. If you provide the solutions, then you will create a better product experience for your User.

Fitting the product into the User’s life presents the writer with a duty and an opportunity:

* The duty to ease the User from what he/she previously did to the new product’s situation

* The opportunity to explain your product by using the User’s experience as a background.