A lot is being said about product life cycles. Marketers are paying special attention to them, many business decisions are done based on the stage the product is at. But if you think about it, technical documentation has a life cycle of its own.
We can talk about the life cycle of a separate help topic and a user manual on the whole. And, although, a user manual consists of help topics, these cycles would be different. Topics are just moving parts constituting a technical document.
Documentation itself lives for as long as the product it describes is in use by someone. It is like a shadow, it follows the product’s ups and downs and changes its form when the product demands. For example, when a new feature is introduced, the user manual receives a new section. Or, when some feature turns out to be too difficult and the support team gets flooded by similar user requests, technical writers review existing help topics, restructure and enhance them.
User manuals are balancing out the product by following its footsteps. That’s why, a stronger connection between teams in a company provides a more flexible and, at the same time, more solid product. Let’s take a look at the stages a user manual goes through and try to figure out the pitfalls of each stage and how to overcome them.
A life cycle of an average user manual can be viewed as a process of iterative nature. It repeats the pattern dev sprints create — introducing minor and major product updates.
A help topic is born as soon as it has been planned. It can be a new topic created from scratch or an existing topic adapted for a new goal.
Bigger user manuals often contain topics with practically the same structure, and creating dozens of similar topics is a hideous task. In this case, single-sourcing techniques help a lot. You can quickly throw in code snippets to shape up a help topic. Variables are awesome also, they can be used to store data like a product version, company name, etc. so you can rest assured no typos or confusions are happening.
Writing and editing are the two main elements that come next. If you localize your technical documentation, it’s going to happen at this stage, as well.
Depending on how you distribute technical documentation, to get to the introduction stage, you need to either publish it online, print it, embed it into the product interface, etc. Either way, technical documents will be introduced to the audience.
Before introducing a product, one designs strategies, builds awareness and works on developing a suitable market. As for user manuals, the best thing you can do is to make it accessible to as many people constituting your target audience as possible through a user friendly UI of the online documentation portal, fast and easy navigation inside the docs, good editing, versions of docs for groups of people with disabilities, like visually impaired people, and basically every little thing that can make your user manual appealing for readers.
If this stage is ignored, technical documentation becomes only the last resort, people are reluctant to use it, which is not supposed to happen and is actually bad for your business. Help articles should provide high case-deflection rates and take the load from support engineers.
Just like a product is growing, user manuals grow, too. Even within one iteration or after documentation becomes accessible to readers, it can grow significantly.
In the latter case, a lot depends on the audience’s reaction. From the moment a user manual is introduced, stats are gathered and measurements are taken to become the basis for both long-term planning and immediate changes.
Documentation grows in quality at the same time. That’s where cross-team collaboration comes in to play — each team can participate in building better help materials by reporting bugs and giving feedback.
In truth, growing never ends for a user manual. There’s always something to improve even at the maturity stage. If everything has been okay so far, maturity will go hand in hand with the maxing out numbers of readers and consistent content freed from most typos, mistakes and data gaps. This is when you can see how effective your planning has been.
As soon as a new product release starts taking shape, the decline of the current technical docs begins. It is considered good practice for technical writers to attend meetings with devs, QA, Product Owners to stay on top of things. But at this stage, such communication becomes extremely important. If a product is discontinued, technical documentation freezes in time — with the exception of rare bug fixes in the existing topics. But, if a new version is just around the corner, no real decline is happening. Content is being studied and plans are drawn on what the upcoming changes will affect. With a mature product, tech writing is about reworking content more than creating stuff anew.
We went through the life cycle of a typical user manual. And, what we can conclude is — each part is equally important and the overall success can only be achieved through the continuity of processes.
Of course, there are tricks you learn along the way as you gain more experience. But, remember that some things like single-sourcing or style guides should be implemented as early as possible to ensure your journey to the land of good user manuals is a success.
Good luck with your technical writing!
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