Find out how users use your documentation

Asking good questions of your users is essential to know how your customers use your documentation. This is part 2 after my post about using a survey to get to know your audience. The introductory paragraphs are identical to last week’s post, so feel free to skip ahead to the two paragraphs before the next heading.

A recent thread at Technical Writing World got me thinking about user surveys and revisiting two posts from 2010 where I wrote about obvious, but not so helpful questions and how to segment users and survey your documentation.

You can get all kinds of answers from your users, but depending on your questions, I find some answers more helpful than others. Jakob Nielsen’s position about usability makes a lot of sense to me:

Pay attention to what users do, not what they say. Self-reported claims are unreliable, as are user speculations about future behavior.

But if we cannot observe users, we have to rely on what they say – and try to ask them questions which yield useful answers. If you include an odd number of set answers in your survey, you can slice up the results (instead of having to deal with freewheeling answers), and users have a chance to select the option in the middle if they want to.

– Here are some questions that can help you to find out how successful your documentation is. Note that it doesn’t simply ask customers what they want. Instead, the questions can help you to determine which deliverables and which topic types (such as concepts and procedures) need improvement.

There are obviously other and better ways to determine user behavior, from usage analytics to user-generated content – but many technical writers don’t have the mandate or means to simply use them. These ideas are for them.

How do you use the documentation?

Do you use the documentation…

  • To set up & configure <our product>
  • To operate <our product>
  • To learn about the business
  • Not at all

When you need help, where do you normally seek information?

  • I look in <product> online help
  • I look in <product> user manuals
  • I ask a colleague
  • I call customer services
  • Other

How frequently do you use <our product> online help?

  • Daily
  • A few times a week
  • A few times a month
  • Once a month or less
  • Never

How frequently do you use <our product> user manuals?

  • Daily
  • A few times a week
  • A few times a month
  • Once a month or less
  • Never

How successful are you with the documentation?

Can you find the information you need in the documentation quickly and easily?

  • No, not at all.
  • More or less.
  • Yes, very much so.

Is the documentation that you find accurate and complete?

  • No, not at all. | More or less. | Yes, very much so.

Is the documentation clear and easy to understand?

  • No, not at all. | More or less. | Yes, very much so.

Does the documentation help you achieve your task?

  • No, not at all. | More or less. | Yes, very much so.

Does the documentation provide sufficient theoretical and business background?

  • No, not at all. | More or less. | Yes, very much so.

Are you satisfied overall with <our product>’s documentation?

  • No, not at all. | More or less. | Yes, very much so.

Your turn

Which questions do you use to find out whether your documentation hits the spot? Feel free to leave a comment.

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