The Evolution of Technical Documentation

I began my professional career as a technical writer creating traditional print-based documentation for software and hardware products. These printed-and-bound documents—installation guides, user guides, admin guides—typically shipped along with the software media (this was before large-bandwidth instant gratification software download days) to the customer.

We then moved to online help systems and single sourcing as the Holy Grail in our industry since you could author the same content and output it in a number of formats based on your customers’ needs. This indeed moved us further up the curve as it allowed the reach of documentation to extend even further.

The next steps down this path included adding inline help with software products and tending toward online forums (“fora” for you Latin scholars out there!) and knowledge bases to provide documentation support. Printed documents have gone the way of the dodo bird now as we tend to ship software via Internet download most often these days.

Finally, it seems that video has supplanted most other methods of “instant gratification” documentation and I am amazed how many technical videos appear on sites like YouTube. Heck, we even put videos on YouTube as well as share through our own site because it’s a great way to communicate a lot of information quickly. If a picture is worth a thousand words then a video must be worth much more!

When I was a writer producing print docs we always joked tongue-in-cheek that no one was going to read our 500-page document and that it would make good firewood for our customers. Sadly, this was more true than we would like since we writers spent a lot of time gathering information to distill and present in a simple concise manner to our user communities. Regardless of our effort, users simply didn’t have the time to use our documents, no matter how much blood, sweat and tears we put into them.

In the end, most folks have neither the time nor the inclination to read a massive tome just to turn on a feature they need. It’s much easier to find the precise information you need to complete your task and then move on with your life. Today’s wonderful search engines provide the ability to index so many types of content, including forums/fora and video, that it’s almost silly to peruse a user or admin guide since you can get the information you need only when you need it by typing in a couple of key words.

So now we’ve come full circle. Much of the “technical documentation” I produce today ends up as a video. Not only can I communicate a ton of information quickly with images, words and illustration, I can provide a personal touch as well. It takes a lot less time and effort to produce videos since there are a number of simple tools to create videos out there. It’s like I’m sitting right next to my customer at her workstation providing direct support.

What do you think? How do you use documentation these days? What methods and techniques work best to help you find just the right information you need at just the right time?

1 Comment

  1. Yes, there are plenty of changes about but do they work? I think the jury is still out on their overall effectiveness.

    I agree most tech writers understand that no one uses their work unless there is a problem. And I prefer video when I search online for home projects.

    But I think there will always be a need for the type of information that goes into technical documents. Users still need accurate and precise information in many instances. But I guess how they access that information is the question.

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