Most days, I straddle the Berlin Wall between product development and marketing. I used to work amongst the programmers as a technical writer. At Capulet, we don’t do software documentation anymore. However, for a lot of our clients, we’re the Checkpoint Charlie between the people who make stuff and the people who promote and sell stuff.
Seth Godin links to Kathy Sierra’s thinking about why “marketing should make the user manuals”:
Why do so many companies treat potential users so much better than existing users? Think about it. The brochure is a thing of beauty, while the user manual is a thing of boredom. The brochure gets the big budget while the manual gets the big index. What if we stopped making the docs we give away for free SO much nicer than the ones the user paid for? What if instead of seducing potential users to buy, we seduced existing users to learn?
She also provides a graphic illustrating that marketing material is ‘glossy, slick, colourful’ while manuals are ‘plain, dull, black and white’.
This is an incredibly wrong headed idea:
- The user has already bought the product. They want to know how it works, not why it’s good. Often the people using the product are not the people who bought it. They don’t care why it’s good. They just want to know how (not why) it will make their lives easier.
- Seth Godin said it best: all marketers are liars.
Marketers are trained to obfuscate, exaggerate, denigrate and spin. Those are useful talents, but not when you’re trying to explain how things work.
- Of all the software marketers I’ve met, only a small fraction has the technical background to thoroughly understand and explain their products. Go ask some folks in BEA’s marketing department how to, say, deploy a message-driven EJB, and see how they do. This isn’t a criticism. Most marketing doesn’t require an in depth understanding of the thing you’re promoting. It helps and is something you should aspire to, but it’s also pretty uncommon.
- Technical writing is a skill set that’s significantly different than marketing. In additional to the technical know-how, you need industry-specific tool knowledge, an understand of usability, instructional skills and so forth.
There’s a reason why words like ‘glossy’ and ‘slick’ have negative connotations. Because they imply shallowness, which isn’t something you should aspire to in a user manual.
It’s hubris to say, as Kathy does, that “shouldn’t we be using all that graphic design and pro writing talent for the people we care about the most?” Ah right, so there hasn’t been any design or ‘pro writing talent’ applied to that area yet? And marketers are the saviours? Right.
User manuals get a bad wrap because companies don’t devote enough resources to them. That money should be spent on thoughtful tech writers, trainers and support personnel who can make compelling training and support material. It shouldn’t be spent on applying lipstick.
In truth, manuals are frequently an admission that by a company that they didn’t design the product well enough. Do you really need a manual for an iPod? Check out the help system in the Apple OS. It sucks. Why? Because it’s so rarely referenced by the user.
The people who sell the product shouldn’t be writing about how the product works. Why not? Let’s revisit BEA. I’m not picking on them, they’re just the first company with a complicated product offering that sprang into my head. Visit the product page for BEA WebLogic Server. Presumably marketing wrote it. The first paragraph of text reads:
Your business can’t afford to have your application server fail. BEA offers an application server built for mission critical applications and service-oriented architecture (SOA). The proven Enterprise Grade Kernel keeps your applications up and running even when deploying a new version, changing the server configuration or failing over within or across data centers.
Then check out the introduction in the manual for the latest version of BEA WebLogic Server:
BEA WebLogic Server is a scalable, enterprise-ready Java Two Enterprise Edition (J2EE) application server. The WebLogic Server infrastructure supports the deployment of many types of distributed applications and is an ideal foundation for building applications based on Service Oriented Architectures (SOA). SOA is a design methodology aimed at maximizing the reuse of application services.
One sells. The other tells you what the product is and does. Having already purchased the thing, which would you rather read?
UPDATE: I believe this Dilbert cartoon expresses my sentiments nicely.