By Megan Moore
If you’re reading the roundCorner blog, you’re probably a regular user of Salesforce NGO Connect or Salesforce. This means that you’re at least somewhat technically savvy. If you’re technically savvy, you’re probably internet savvy; if you’re internet savvy, you know your memes. (I know that’s presumptuous cascading logic, but bear with me.) If you’re familiar with memes, you know the meaning of “tl;dr.” If you’re a person who doesn’t waste a lot of time on tumblr, reddit, or memebase, and the meaning of this one has escaped you, here it is: tl;dr stands for “too long; didn’t read,” and is usually accompanied by an adorable photo of a cat doing something besides reading (for example, staring off into space or sleeping), an image of someone shrieking in horror in front of a giant wall of text, or a photo of congress aligned under a photo of the U.S. constitution. Ha ha.
Too long; didn’t read. For writers, this is an important concept; for technical writers, it is vital. Obviously it’s the job of a technical writer to provide the information that enables users to be successful with a product. But providing too much information can be counterproductive. I once worked at a company where the director of client services insisted on pushing out an 800+ page manual that detailed every available setting and special configuration in the software, but in no particular order and with no overall organizational structure. It was like throwing an encyclopedia at our customers and saying “good luck, kid! Go do great things!” The client services director believed that this was a good format for our “documentation” because such a bulky manifesto would impress (possibly intimidate?) our customers by showing them the depth and versatility of the product. I thought it was kind of cruel. Don’t get me wrong; it’s great to have documentation – somewhere – of all of your product’s cool tips and tricks. But providing too much information is less analogous to providing help than it is to adding another level of complexity to the user experience. And that makes the user experience worse. My job is to make it better.
In other words, when someone asks you for a nice, breezy read for a summertime trip to the beach, don’t give them a copy of Finnegan’s Wake.
But wait! There’s a flipside: not having enough content to complete the picture. Minimalism can be effective if you’re an interior designer; less so if you’re a Technical Writer. Providing enough information is just as crucial as not providing too much. Users need context! Context helps point you toward a goal. It also gives you confidence as you work. For many years I’ve been following the work of brilliant Technical Writer named Sarah Maddox. In one of her blog posts from a few years back, she describes instructions she saw on a torch battery. They are:
“Do not misuse.”
In response, she says: “Now, we all agree that brevity is best. But if you say anything, make it meaningful.” Good advice, I think. My focus is to make roundCorner’s documentation meaningful.
And that’s not all. There’s one more major element to successful user help: presentation. A good user guide is even better if:
• it’s well-organized (making use of headings and sub-headings, a logical “nesting” of subjects).
• it contains useful screen shots (but not too many!).
• it’s indexed so that it’s easily searchable.
• it provides links to other relevant topics.
• it contains a space for users to comment on a page, or to leave questions for the author.
• it’s in the best location. where should this particular piece of content live? in online help? embedded within the product? in a quick help video? not all content is the same, thus not all content should be delivered in the same way.
So while I’m thinking about user guides that aren’t too long, and that are elucidating and meaningful, I want them to also be accessible. Easily searchable, logically designed, intuitively formatted.
If you’re a current user of NGO Connect, you know what a powerful piece of software it is. And having that huge treasure chest of functions and features–custom settings, batch gift entry, rollups, payment processing, planned giving, hard and soft credits, you name it–means having to address a LOT of information with our user help! Luckily I work with a wonderful team who are helping me learn the ins and outs of the product, so I can seek out the correct information and put it where it needs to be. We’re deep into the process of building a big beautiful (online) library of help resources. Hopefully none of them will cause you (or your internet superstar cat) to fall asleep on your keyboard.
Megan Moore works at roundCorner to create and manage all of the company’s user help and training resources. Megan has 15 years’ experience creating online help, writing documentation, building virtual training tools, and organizing and indexing huge troves of content. Outside of work she loves to read, write, and attend live storytelling events around NYC. She also volunteers for dog rescue organizations in Brooklyn.