If your product isn't documented it doesn't exist

    If I asked you to tell me about your product’s documentation right now you would probably find someone else to talk to instead. It’s not exactly the most exciting conversation for most product teams, right?

    Which is interesting as it’s probably one of the most important.

    Along with the onboarding process and customer support, documentation is the “transfer layer” of knowledge for your customers. Documentation is an essential component in how a user transforms their intent into an outcome. So maybe not a small thing to ignore.

    Docs or didn’t happen

    A product without documentation is invisible. Or probably even worse than that — known but ignored.

    How wasteful is it to see a fully-featured solution to a real problem emerging from an incredible effort of a product team… and stumbling at the last mile of actually showing the customer what it can do?

    Every bit of product development relies on empowering your customer in transferring an intent to an outcome. Documentation may not be as fun as onboarding widgets or customer support apps, but it is still the majority of that actual transfer layer.

    You know what? It probably doesn’t “just work” after all.

    More than just writing

    One of the interesting revelations that a technical writer experiences in their career is the impact of their writing outside of just documentation.

    It’s not just "docs".

    Don’t freak out or anything, but technical writing is also content marketing. And sales. And support. And risk mitigation. And SEO. And yes even brand advocacy.

    How many times have you heard about Stripe’s API documentation? Chances are if you’re reading this, probably more than a few times. And not just from writers, but developers and product managers. People love it.

    I hope we all experience love like Stripe’s API docs are loved.

    Picking between Stripe and Braintree (or even BlueSnap) is a big decision. Customers don’t buy products, they buy three to five year journeys. They buy trust and guidance. Having a map through that journey is reassuring. And having a starter kit that's been fine-tuned to get productive ASAP is even better.

    Support isn’t docs

    And sorry, customer support, you’re great and all, but why should a user have to ask a human every time they want to follow the next step in a task? Didn’t the UX team map this in the user journey already? Turn those finger paints and post-it notes into words and ship it!

    It’s far more efficient for the user (and cheaper for the company) to progress through a procedure at their own pace. Customer support without documentation is just an expensive chat.

    It was the best of times (it was the docs of time)
    The good news is that it’s easier than ever to publish usable content to keep your customers happy.

    Multiple tools exist to help teams create and manage their content. We built Corilla to power collaborative authoring and maximise reuse of content at scale, but even a static site on GitHub or a wiki are better than nothing.

    Formats like Markdown have made it incredibly easy to just get writing. If your complexity outgrows it, seamlessly convert to another format (like Asciidoc).

    In terms of technical writing talent, there’s good news there too. Communities like our friends at Write The Docs exist as hubs for progressive technical writers. The kind that understand how UX and content marketing and documentation overlap.

    Communities like this can recommend freelance or contact talent for projects even on limited budgets — expertise that can set up the information architecture, style guide and structure that removes the complexity of simply writing.

    Be visible.

    Great products deserve to be visible. And that visibility comes from understanding what actually empowers users.
    Your customers don’t care about this year’s trend in support widgets or chat-bots or virtual reality webinars. They just want to get things done.

    It might not be the most exciting conversation for a product team to have, but documentation is one of the most important when it comes to ensuring the product is actually used as intended. You want people to use your product right? So grab some yellow pencils and ship it.

    David Ryan

    David Ryan

    Managing Director and cofounder of Corilla, a publishing tool for technical writers. An alumnus of the NUMA accelerator and Red Hat.

    Paris and London and San Francisco http://www.corilla.com