Let’s consider the why question for a moment. After all, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to go back to basics. What actually is the point of technical documentation? What is its core function, how does the customer use it, and what added value does it also create for the company?
The foundation laid
First of all, let’s take a look at the core requirement to be met by technical documentation. Instructions should enable users to use a product fully, efficiently, and safely. At first glance, “safety” is key. Sometimes technical writers try to warn against every conceivable danger, but those who “play it safe” then create instruction manuals that are littered with warnings. Such manuals discourage rather than facilitate the use of the product. “Overwarning” does not have to be the case however, as instructions may require specific knowledge and be aimed at certain target groups.
In practice, the goal of using products “fully” and “efficiently” is actually much harder to achieve. Many products today are so complex that even the developers do not have a complete overview of all the functionalities and usage scenarios. And even if they are familiar with all the functionalities, it may make sense to not document them all or at least split them up into different manuals for different target groups. Otherwise you end up with manuals containing thousands of pages for complex products, which makes it near impossible for users to find the particular functionality they need at that time. And that brings us back to efficiency. Efficient use does not just mean that the product can be used efficiently; it also means that the manual allows for efficient use of the product. For this reason, the following applies to instruction manuals: as little as possible, but enough to help.
The customer in focus
From the customer’s perspective, in an ideal scenario, technical documentation is an important communication tool after their purchase. In this phase in particular it is important that companies do not leave their customers on their own, but rather gain long-term loyalty through service, support, and after-sales communication.
It is often assumed that technical communication is not read anyway. However, this claim does not stand up to objective scrutiny. A study by DIN, for example, has shown that the majority of users use the manuals at some point during the product life cycle, e.g., when a fault occurs. The reasoning behind the assumption that manuals are not used is therefore likely the result of misunderstanding the usage situation. The manual is indeed not “read” if this is understood as the document being read from beginning to end. But that is not at all what you should expect from an instruction manual.
The company in focus
Many companies see technical documentation first and foremost as a form of risk protection. In one sense this is true, as manuals should indeed facilitate safe use. Should damage occur, a company can refer to the instruction manual and avert compensation claims resulting from incorrect operation.
However, the corporate strategy clearly falls short if the role of technical documentation is limited to a form of liability protection. The content created in technical documentation may be useful for many other functional units within the company, e.g., as a quick reference guide on the machine panel, a product description in the online shop, or as a knowledge database for support. A far-sighted corporate strategy is to consider this and to take into account technical documentation in internal and external communication processes.
“Technical writing – Why?” The answers to this question are almost imposing. Technical documentation is not a luxury or a necessary evil. Done correctly, it prevents risks, helps the customer, and its benefits unfold in a wide variety of business contexts. The question of why is not a question that technical documentation needs to shy away from.