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Documentation Usability Tips

Manali Oak
How important is product documentation? How to improve its usability? Read on for some documentation usability tips.
Documentation is the written text that accompanies a product and provides users with assistance in using it. Documentation consists of product specifications, description of the product architecture, reference manuals, tutorials, troubleshooting information, and code documentation (in case it's a software product).
For the documentation to be usable, it has to be written with clarity and precision. It has to carry clear and coherent instructions about using the product. The code documentation should carry an explanation of the actions performed by the code, its functionality, and its intent.
Product code is not written in common man's language. For users to understand the code, it has to be supplemented with a suitable documentation. It helps explain to the users, the functionality of the product and the ways to implement it.
Documentation guides the users in performing various operations on the product and tells the users how to perform them. Nowadays, product documentation also comprises online help, tutorials, and manuals to help its users know the product better.
The usability of a documentation depends on its content and the way in which it is worded. The popularity of a product depends on the ease with which it can be used and the clarity with which its usability is communicated to the users.
Documentation should not be an afterthought; it should be completed in synchronization with the product's development. The product's features and functions need to be incorporated in its documentation.

Know Your Users

The usability of documentation is about understanding the needs of the audience. Before you begin creating the documentation, it is important to know who the readers are and what they expect from the document. Understand the cultural and educational backgrounds of your audiences.
A document for people in the marketing field, for example, has to be worded differently from that for a technical group. The way of presenting information should vary depending on whether the audiences are novice users or experts. While creating the documentation, it is good to keep ensuring that it adheres to its intended customers' needs.

Design the Document Structure and Form

The structure of the document should be planned in advance. User manuals should have a table of contents and a glossary. Documentation should be easy to read and understand.
The table of contents should be used to give the users a brief idea of the main topics covered in the document. The information should be well-organized. The physical layout of the documentation should not be ignored.
The information should be broken down in such a way that it can be presented effectively to the users. Commercial products often provide the user with an alphabetical list of its functions and their explanations.
Printed matter and online help are the two forms of presenting information. Choose the way that best suits your users' needs. Online documentation, being readily accessible, improves usability.

Make it Interesting

It is important for the writers to word the document in such a way that it invites interest of the readers. Scenarios can be used to make the instructions clearer. Use of present tense and active voice makes a direct address to the readers.
To help people understand your concepts and ideas better, information can be presented in the form of narratives. Scenarios and walk-throughs make for good ways of presenting information about a product. They can be supplemented with illustrations or screenshots.

Think the Users' Way

When you put yourself in the users' shoes, you understand how users think and act. The documentation should cater to the users' way of thinking and their possible interaction with the product while using it.
You need to expect errors - errors that users would most probably make while using the product for the first time. Offer troubleshooting information in the documentation. Provide solutions to commonly occurring problems and the most probable mistakes of users.
Catering to the users' expectations and maintaining clarity in expression are key to enhancing documentation usability.