Thursday, February 22, 2018

Planning a User Guide - Part 1/5 - Audience Analysis


Creating a User Guide is in many ways similar to building software. Just like software, creating a successful manual also needs prior planning. 

Planning a User Guide is a large topic so I’ll write it as a series of eight posts - one for each planning task.

Here’s the first post on audience analysis.

Audience Analysis

A User Guide explains how to install and use the product. An effective User Guide does it in a way that is easy and clear for its readers. It considers the goals and requirements of the users. Therefore, the first planning task is to understand the target audience.

The best way to understand your users is to interview them. The interview is done to identify usage patterns and a set of attributes that will help you communicate more effectively with your target audience.

You can begin by identifying a few (let’s say five) users and interview them to understand their requirements. If you already have a few pilot or actual customers then it's best to begin with them. However, if you don’t have customers as yet, then the interviews can be done with people you already know and who might fit the profile of a typical user. Old colleagues, family, and friends are usually happy to help. You can also tap into your LinkedIn network. It might reveal interesting people who may not have crossed your mind. 

The outcome of user interviews is a set of models that will help you understand your customers. User Personas are a great way to model your target audience. Aurora Harley gives a nice definition in this article:

A persona is a fictional, yet realistic description of a typical or target user of the product. A persona is an archetype instead of an actual living human, but personas should be described as if they were real people.

In software terminology, a persona can be thought of as an abstraction of a group of people who belong to the same user type. It contains those characteristics, of the group, that are important for building a better product - in this case, the user guide. However, a persona is more than just an abstraction. It is an attempt to make the abstraction personal and realistic. A typical abstraction might describe a user in dry, statistical terms. But a persona makes the description more human, helping us to not only understand but also empathize with the user and their requirements.

Unless your software is for a very niche audience, you will most likely need multiple personas - one for each type of user. Realistically, I suggest creating about 3 - 5 personas. If you are building an enterprise software then you also need to create personas for the system admins who will install and manage the system. My suggestion is to create 2 - 3 system administrator personas in addition to user personas. Usually interviewing 2 - 3 people for each persona should be sufficient. 

From the perspective of a user guide, a typical persona would have the following details:
  • Personal details such as age, gender, and educational background.
  • Professional details such as occupation and experience.
  • Knowledge of the business domain and terminology. 
  • Needs
    • Does the user have any special needs?
    • On what device do they typically access the User Guide and the product? 
    • Does the user use this software for work or is it for personal use?
    • Any other needs the user has.
  • Goals when working with the product: speed, accuracy, thoroughness, etc.
  • A photograph of a typical user: You can photograph an actual user or pull out a stock photo that most closely resembles the details you've gathered. Having a photo may seem insignificant but it’s not. A photograph will make it easier for your team to empathize with the user.
Once ready, the user personas can be used as a reference point for making decisions related to the manual’s design and content. For example, personal details of the user will help in determining the choice of words and the tone of the manual. A User Guide written for an audience in their 60s and 70s will use a different set of words than a User Guide written for an audience primarily in their 30s. You might also want to use a larger font for the former. 

If most of the users read the manual on their mobile device then you would avoid a multi-column design. You would also avoid margin notes. 

It’s important to know how familiar users are with the business domain and terminology. This point is really important because a typical manual contains a lot of terminologies. We often assume familiarity but it’s often not the case. It’s good to know which words and concepts the users might have to struggle with so they can be included in the glossary.  

A product made for hobbyists might have a manual that explains a lot of background concepts and provides useful tips, while a manual centered around business users will be more to the point and formal. 

These are just some ways to use the information from user personas - you’ll create your own rules as you go along. The key is to ask yourself questions like:

  • Will this cover design appeal to Emily and John?
  • Will Mr. Watkins be able to read this font style? Are the margins and spacing comfortable for him?
  • Ms. Shaw does not have much time on her hands. Is the information I am writing concise enough for her?
It’s really about making it a barrier-free experience for the users.  

Finally, user personas serve as a terminology for discussions, much like design patterns do in software architecture related discussions. In software architecture discussions, using a pattern name such as ‘The Singleton Pattern’ or ‘MVC Pattern’ allows the speaker to use a name that expands into concepts that would have otherwise taken a lot of explaining. Similarly, in User Guide related discussions, a writer might say - “I think this decision will be perfect for Emily’s needs.” The user persona referenced to by “Emily” expands to all the needs described in that persona without having to mention each of them individually.

In conclusion, begin your User Guide with a planning phase to ensure that it's easy for your users to use and understand. Getting to know your target audience is the first planning step. We use User Personas to model types of users and then subsequently these personas in discussions and while writing the User Guide.

Here are three articles that you can read for more information on User Personas:

  1. How to create personas (HubSpot Academy)
  2. How to create a user persona (99 Designs)
  3. How To Create Customer Personas With Actual, Real. Life Data
In the next blog post, I will explain how to define the overall scope of the User Guide.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Five Reasons Why Your Product Needs an Awesome User Guide

Macintosh User Manual - Clicking

A user guide is essentially a book-length document containing instructions for installing, using or troubleshooting a hardware or software product. A user guide can be very brief - for example, only 10 or 20 pages or it can be a full-length book of 200 pages or more. -- prismnet.com
As engineers, we give a lot of importance to product design, architecture, code quality, and UX. However, when it comes to the user manual, we often only manage to pay lip service. This is not good. A usable manual is as important as usable software because it is the first line of help for the user and the first line of customer service for the organization. Any organization that prides itself on great customer service must have an awesome user manual for the product.
In the spirit of listicles - here are at least five reasons why you should have an awesome user manual!


Enhance User Satisfaction


In my fourteen years as a software developer, I have often been in situations where something just wouldn't work in a software I was using. When this happens, I usually try a few quick hacks and if they didn't work either, I reach for the user manual. I consider the user manual to be the first line of support and I open it with part hope and part trepidation. There have been times -- God bless the team who wrote it -- when the manual pointed me to the solution immediately. The feeling I have at such times is unmistakable. There is a sense of relief; a sense of joy; and a sense of gratitude. It is very satisfying. I say a silent thank you to the team for making my life easier. I feel glad I purchased that software instead of the alternatives.
I'm sure most people feel that way and yet when it is our turn to write the manual, we somehow miss out on its importance. 
If you value user satisfaction - make sure your product has a great manual.

Reduce Support Overhead


I have also been on the other side of the table where I have had to talk with bewildered customers who were stuck with issues they couldn't fix. These calls typically took anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. Add to that the cost of context switching from my work and the overall cost of a sloppy User Guide is fairly heavy.
Granted that developers don't have to get on customer support calls in most organizations (although they do in most startups) it's still someone's time spent that could have been saved with a better manual.
Whether it's developer time or the time of the support staff - lost time translates directly to cost. Not only that, it also results in a lost opportunity to give more timely support if the support team gets swamped. 


Increase Sales

By now enough people have burned their fingers with buggy or unusable software. A good user manual is no longer seen as an added benefit. It's a must-have for many customers. I have always considered the user manual as an important factor when evaluating software for a purchase decision and I suspect many people will consider it to be an important factor before closing the deal.
Another way user manuals impact sales is through the satisfaction of existing customers. Satisfied customers are some of your best evangelists. They will talk about the product with other people which can generate sales with little or no effort from the sales team.


Create a Great Image for Your Product and Company

Scott Cooley considers documentation to be a maturity indicator. How true! It takes a mature company to understand the importance of great documentation and also allocate resources to actually create it.
It's also an indicator of how much your company values the customer's time. All organizations declare satisfaction as their #1 priority. Here's a simple way to actually demonstrate it.
Finally, a beautifully written user manual adds that extra X-factor to the image of the product. Producing great user documentation is an effective way to enhance the brand value of your company.


Limit Legal Liability Related to Misuse of the Product

You are liable if people hurt themselves while using your product and you haven't provided them with the means to avoid it. -- technicalwriting.eu
This one's probably more important for hardware products or software products that handle machinery or critical health-related equipment. If you do have a critical product it is your duty to write a manual that clearly outlines appropriate usage and safety instructions. But even if you aren't shipping critical software, it's still a good idea to describe the correct way to use your product.

Summing it up


We all know the benefits of great user documentation, but somehow deadline pressures make us complacent. However, if you consider the cost and opportunity benefit that accrues from:
  1. Enhanced user satisfaction
  2. Reduced support overhead
  3. Increased sales
  4. Improved branding
  5. Limited legal liabilities
- you will agree that it's a no-brainer to put in additional time and resources for creating awesome User Guides.