Writing for use

More an art than a science, writing useful technical materials requires audience knowledge, imagination and practical experience with a product or service. Technical writers are often required to write about products before the products even exist. Writing "technical fiction" demands an active imagination. What kinds of problems might people encounter? What questions are they likely to ask?

Product engineers know the answers to the basic questions, such as, where is the power switch located? But when called upon to write materials for novice users, they rarely consider the plight of the poor person who has not lived with the product for a year, as they have. Invariaby, engineer writers opine about super-duper features or aspects of the product they themselves find confusing.

Does this describe you? Before you put fingers to keyboard (alias pen to paper) for your next user manual, talk to at least one real user. If you don't have access to a real user, at least do a simple usability test: ask your girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband to perform a simple task using your product. Don't coach them. See what problems they encounter. Take notes. Sleep on your findings. The next day you'll have insights you never would have noticed otherwise. Then start writing.

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