Do people read technical documentation? This question has always been kind of looming over technical writing. And, this year, it became known to a much larger audience. Last Thursday, on September 13, 2018, the annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony took place in Harvard. And, not surprisingly (we will talk about why we believe it’s not that surprising later in this article), one of the awards was given to the research on technical writing titled ‘Life Is Too Short to RTFM: How Users Relate to Documentation and Excess Features in Consumer Products’.
Further in this article, we will explain the origin and goals of this peculiar award ceremony and, also, analyze the award-receiving article and the steps to be taken so that users could, actually, enjoy Reading That Friendly Manual :)
Ig Nobel — Why so not Serious?
The Ig Nobel Prize has been awarded annually since 1991. This ceremony was created as a parody of the Nobel Prize. As you probably know, the Nobel Prize itself is a world famous ceremony which is marking outstanding achievements in the following fields yearly: chemistry, medicine or physiology, literature, peace, physics. This ceremony has quite a history — established by the Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel, it exists for more than a century, starting from 1901. Ever since, it has been a great honor for a scientist to win this award. The Ig Nobel Prize is organized by the scientific humor magazine called the Annals of Improbable Research. ‘Ig Nobel’ is a pun, referring to the word ‘ignoble’ meaning that something is characterized as embarrassing, not good.
So, the mock awards are given for trivial, unusual and even absurd scientific achievements. But, why are they being so mean? In reality, they are not. There’s a common quote stating that the Ig Nobel Prize is awarded to honor achievements that ‘first make people laugh, and then make them think.’ If we really think about it, the real serious science has always been a bit elitistic. Try reading brilliant works of winners of the original Nobel Prize — you, most likely, won’t understand much. This creates a gap between science and average people. So, what the Ig Nobel Prize is trying to do is minimize this gap, bring people’s attention to science through fun.
RTFM — Read The [pause] Manual
‘Life Is Too Short to RTFM: How Users Relate to Documentation and Excess Features in Consumer Products’ — this is the full name of the scientific research by Alethea L. Blackler, Rafael Gomez, Vesna Popovic, and M. Helen Thompson that got the Ig Nobel Prize this year in literature. You might expect something more connected to literature as a form of art in this category, not technical writing. But, this is only natural since technical writing is on a rise, and, it actually earned a couple more popularity points thanks to this award. Returning to the work’s theme. The authors studied how excess features in moderns devices paired with the necessity to read user manuals can be quite upsetting and annoying for users. The scientists found out by means of an experiment that many people do not even use additional features if understanding them requires reading technical documentation.
This research can also prove a couple of points in regards to what modern user manuals should be like not to bore people and let them use their hi-tech devices to the fullest. Here’s what we came up with:
- Documentation should be easily accessible from anywhere in the world. An online documentation portal would be a great solution here. Plus, this is a more eco-friendly approach, than printed documentation.
- User manuals should be more than just sets of instructions. Technical writers should become part of the product development and adoption processes to help users get the most of what’s offered. Refer to this article to learn how this can be implemented.
- Convenient and thought-through navigation is a ‘must’ for any documentation project. Make sure the help topics are logically structured and the cross-reference game is strong — otherwise, some awesome but, perhaps, not that popular features might never be discovered.
- Technical writers should be following the basic UX rules to make reading documentation easy and smooth. A style guide is required. Plus, some modern help authoring tools offer ready-to-use documentation templates designed by professionals.
There is, actually, a lot that can be done in order to improve technical documentation usability and readability. With the enlisted points, we can merely shape up some sort of a general idea for those who are willing to make their user manuals better.
The Ig Nobel Prizes ceremony is, of course, a true modern phenomenon. It is quite clear that the people behind this award never intended to mock or humiliate anyone — their aim is to show people that science can be fun and bring science and society a bit closer. Also, as you can see from this article, the Ig Nobel Prize really makes us think after the laughter and can encourage us to see an old dilemma from a different perspective.
Good luck with your technical writing career!
Author, host and deliver documentation across platforms and devices
Originally published at clickhelp.com.