The user experience is greater than the sum of those parts: your customers judge your product on the entire customer journey. This means that “traditional” documentation needs to fit seamlessly into the customer-facing content produced by your company: marketing material, sales brochures, training programs, and the product’s user interface. We rarely know at which point in their journey a buyer will want to access technical content, so we can’t presume that our docs will only be read after the purchase.
What Neal Kaplan describes in this installment of his bi-monthly column is nothing we should find new. He talks about good documentation, best practices, and how our documentation supports the product. The salient point, however, is that technical documentation is as much part of the user experience as the code, colors, and interactions.
I do, however, disagree with the sentiment that documentation supports the product. If the content of the product is well-built, it should need little to no onboarding. Most of the information the user needs should be contained within the content. Guides, tutorials, and the like should not be necessary for basic functionality. But, there are still things that technical documentation can offer the user. For example, additional use cases, FAQs, API translation, supplemental materials, and on and on. In this way, I prefer a slight change of wording: documentation is an extension of the product itself.
Kaplan does, however, make a good case for an alternate use of tutorials and the like, that of marketing. In shopping around for products, potential users want to take a peek inside the box. Copyright concerns aside, videos may be well and good, but they don’t tell the potential user how he or she will use the product. In this way, documentation is not just a window into the product—it is a window into the potential user’s relationship with the product.