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Users’ Advocate: Where Have All the Users Gone?

TechWhirl WebsiteTechWhirl Website United StatesPosts: 396 admin
edited September 2013 via Wordpress in Technical Writing and Communications
imageUsers’ Advocate: Where Have All the Users Gone?

As I begin my stewardship of the Users' Advocate column, I think it is important to begin by asking, where have all the users gone? Thirty years ago, tech comm had a more or less captive audience. If users wanted information on your product, they looked at the manual. They didn't have much choice. Today, when the user has a question or encounters a problem with your product, the first thing they do is to Google it.

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  • Tom JohnsonTom Johnson United StatesPosts: 4
    via Wordpress
    Excellent article. I agree with most of your points. I especially like your comment that "the users of technical communication have moved to the Web." I also agree with your reasoning about why some users ask for PDFs -- because the content was written to be read optimally in book form.

    I would note that not all technical information is available on the web, though. Users can't always just turn to google to find information. That model only works for popular consumer products. But suppose you work on a highly specialized product (e.g., functions for a Cateye Cyclocomputer bike monitor) where the only help information is on your company's site. In that model, the user has to come to the source of info to find it. This is in contrast to help for popular products like WordPress, where practically everyone writes help and tips on their own blog.

    I'm also curious to hear more about how you bridge the gap between structured authoring and the web. It seems like if you want content on the web, you need to use a web platform. Publishing tripane help online puts your information on the web, but that platform is not "of the web," to use your phrase. Do you see a trend in authoring in structured platforms such as EasyDITA and publishing out to web platforms such as Drupal and WordPress?

  • mbakeranalectambakeranalecta CanadaPosts: 53
    via Wordpress
    Hi Tom. Thanks for the comment.

    Indeed, not all technical information is on the Web. That's the problem. However, current coverage is vastly more than just popular consumer products.

    For instance, there is third party tech comm for the Cateye Cyclocomputer bike monitor. Googling "Cateye Cyclo computer bike monitor repair" turns up this, and a great deal more:


    Anything related to Web protocols, programming languages, and APIs, for instance, are covered extensively on the Web. Anything to do with auto repair or aftermarket installation is also there. Repairing and playing musical instruments is there. Coverage is vast and growing.

    And even if there isn't much community tech comm around your product, that is no reason not to have you technical content on the Web. So many things are covered on the Web that the first thing people do when looking for information on anything is to Google for it. Even if you are the only people who write about your product, what is the downside of letting customer and potential customers find out about it with a Google search?

    To be sure, there are particular products for which keeping documentation private makes sense, either because you are revealing proprietary information to your customers under a license agreement, or you need to closely control the sales cycle. But these are not the reasons that most companies are not putting their content on the Web. And these reasons have nothing to do with the many companies who are designing their documentation for paper (even though they never ship paper) and then throwing it up on the Web in a form that is un-web-like and virtually useless on the Web.

    The world has moved to the Web as its default platform for information, and tech comm should be there unless there is a very good business reason not to be.
  • mbakeranalectambakeranalecta CanadaPosts: 53
    via Wordpress
    Tom, on your question about structured authoring and the Web, I think that is still one of the missing pieces. One of the key differences between book/help content and Web content is linear vs web-like organization and navigation. Wikis provide unstructured authoring with Web-like navigation. DTP tools provide unstructured authoring with book like navigation, and DocBook and DITA provide structured authoring with book/help style organization and navigation. The empty quadrant here is structured authoring with web-like organization and navigation. (The SPFE project is intended to fit in that quadrant.)

    This is not to say that you can't use these other tools to product content with web-like organization and navigation, you may just have to work a little harder to achieve it than if you had a tool designed specifically for it.

    Whether such a tool would/could/should publish out to WordPress or Drupal is an interesting one. Both are designed to be both authoring and publishing tools, so you run into some workflow issues if you push content into them from another system -- how do you prevent people from editing that content in WordPress of Drupal rather than in your structured source? On the other hand, these tools have rich publishing and interaction features that it makes sense to use rather than duplicated. Perhaps it just needs a plugin to provide protection for generated content. In any case, I see this as an area that deserves much more research.
  • Craig CardimonCraig Cardimon Posts: 1
    via Wordpress
    I enjoyed reading your article. I get it. I understand. Can you tell me how to get buy-in from management, because my own efforts to this point have been unsuccessful.
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