Saturday, July 4, 2009

Bad docs rarely mean bad sales

My father is more than 65 years old - which means he is officially a "senior citizen" entitled to tax breaks, travel concessions, blah blah. It does not, however, mean he is entitled to special consideration from his children (who continue to treat him like he's the dad that dropped them off to school but often mixed up the timings of the son's school with the daughter's).

So, when I got a blank SMS from my father (a few days ago, he'd been given a cell phone by my mother), I did not panic. I calmly rang him up (from 1500 kilimetres away) and asked, "Why on earth did you send me a blank SMS?"
"Did I? But I am still trying to write the message; how did it reach you already?"
"Oh? Did you ask Mom to show you how to write messages?"
"No, she's in the shower. I thought I'll look at this tiny booklet that came with the phone."
"This is what it says under 'Message'."

"Hmm, did you press 'Send' after you wrote the message or before?"
"I could not figure out Step 2. It says 'write'. How do I write? I want to type H, then O..."
Problem 1: Step 2 does not say how to write a message, neither does it link you to another place in the doc that might have instructions on how to write the message.
"Then you must have pressed 'Send' before you typed anything. Now, look carefully in the manual and see if there's a topic called 'Writing a message' or similar."
After 2 minutes of silence,
"Yes, there is something called 'Write text'."

"Okay, so now you write the text and send it to me."
"No, wait, it says 'press the key repeatedly'. Which key?"
Problem 2: Which key does "the" refer to?

By this time, I had lost patience and mom had finished her shower, so, within 5 minutes I got an SMS from dad. It read "How were the mangoes we sent across last week?"

How was this episode relevant to me as a technical writer? Let me count the ways:
  1. It reinforced two of my firmly held beliefs:
    1. Do not assume your reader to be as tech-savvy as you might be. Do an audience analysis and write for the lowest common denominator (remember Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra?)
    2. Do not make the reader go hunting for bits and pieces of info. Give complete instructions in one topic. It's okay to be verbose if that's what it takes to completely describe an action.
  2. It added one more incident to my observation that badly produced "help" rarely effects buying decisions. Not at the retail level, anyway. I'll still go buy a handset from this equipment manufacturer because their handsets are good.

    Which might mean - technical writing is a cost activity, not a revenue or a profit activity.