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Software Product Documentation - Less is More

Posted by Balwant C Surti (View Profile | View All Posts) at 1:22 PM

Here is a quick question to begin with. When was the last time you referred to a bulky user manual for a consumer product? Chances are that you haven't done that in a while. There was a time when a manual was often larger than the product it described, such as a scientific calculator. But when I checked the documentation that came with my iPad mini, smartphone, and Acer Tablet, in each case it was minimal. Of course, there was plenty of electronic content online.

Here is a quick question to begin with. When was the last time you referred to a bulky user manual for a consumer product? Chances are that you haven't done that in a while. There was a time when a manual was often larger than the product it described, such as a scientific calculator. But when I checked the documentation that came with my iPad mini, smartphone, and Acer Tablet, in each case it was minimal. Of course, there was plenty of electronic content online.

Now, check any software product that you acquired recently. Although the documentation will be mostly electronic or online, it will be extensive. If you are lucky, there will be a short Quick Start or Getting Started Tutorial that is actually helpful and will get you up and running quickly. But you will still have to go through a lot of stuff to get many things done. Of course, software is getting smarter with all kinds of contextual help, floating tips, prompts, popups, dropdowns, hover help, wizards etc., which makes it easy for a new user to get going without reading the manual. Many consumer products are intuitive and don't need a manual to operate, unless they have a lot of knobs and switches and levers in which case some help may still be needed to figure out the cryptic icons.

Product documentation is undergoing a lot of change today. As product categories become better known, their manuals shrink in size. Compare the size of a typical manual for a mobile phone or calculator today against that when they were still new categories. But the same trend is not seen in enterprise software, where product complexity remains huge. Developments, such as Graphical User Interface, Touch, Workflows etc., have tried to make it easier for the user, but enterprise software deals with complex processes such as Accounting, Manufacturing, Banking, Production, Software Development and so on, which aren't easy to simplify. Tons of manuals must be created to help users, administrators and installers understand the complexities of the software. Documentation may no longer be published on paper, but it is available online in electronic formats. Online documentation has given opportunities to embed videos, simulations and other multimedia elements to make it even more user friendly. Documentation can be brought up automatically based on the context, or it can be searched for using powerful search engines with Artificial Intelligence capabilities, but the sheer volume of the documentation still makes it a daunting task for users to find exactly what they want.

While for many mobile and desktop software, there is little need for a detailed document because the application itself is self-explanatory, enterprise software is still dependent on detailed and long explanations in external manuals to help users understand, install and configure it correctly. Is this a sign that enterprise software still has a long way to go before the documentation shrinks to something small and easy to read? Or is there something inherent in enterprise software that will continue to need extensive documentation? The evolution of product documentation has shown that it shrinks as a product becomes easier to use. Probably the extensive documentation accompanying enterprise software suggests that some amount of improvement in usability will be required, before the paperwork can downsize. Does anybody see that happening anytime soon?

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