For technical writing, user feedback is essential

To produce great technical writing, you must analyze user feedback. Much like any business endeavor, you have to have customers to tell you when you are hitting the target. You can write the most detailed instructions in the world, but if they aren't the instructions users actually want, you're wasting your time.

That said, how do you go about gathering feedback to flesh out your documentation?

Here are a few ways savvy writers collect information from customers.

  • Formal usability testing - If you work at Google or Microsoft, chances are you have usability labs for testing purposes. However, even small departments can schedule one-on-one time with select users. Just plan ahead so that you can use the time wisely. Do a bit of research on usability testing before inviting customers in for observed use of products.
  • Help feedback forms - Many help authoring tools have server-based feedback forms that allow your readers to send any criticism of the software documentation directly to you. Take advantage of these tools. Just be sure to take individual suggestions with a grain of salt; instead, look for common complaints and fix them. If your user assistance tool doesn't have this feature built in, consider asking for help to build such functionality into your documentation.
  • Paper feedback forms - For printed user manuals, a simple feedback page with pre-paid postage might get you some responses. While this isn't an optimal situation because it requires a lot of action from users, it might help you resolve some documentation issues.
  • User forums - The great thing about user forums is that everyone is honest. Visitors might use foul language to refer to your product, and they'll definitely state their problems in a no-holds-barred manner. That honesty makes product forums a great place to gather information for improving your documents.
  • Support staff - If you have a dedicated support team for your product, start building a great relationship with them now. Chances are they talk directly to your users every day, and can tell you exactly the types of problems you need to address in your user manual and online help. By improving your documents in this manner, you reduce support calls and allow the Support team to show quicker response times. Everyone wins.
  • Product blogs - For many products, a few users will take initiative and create blogs devoted to issues, updates, tips, and so on. Search the web for blogs related to your products. You might be surprised at what you find.
  • Google - Take advantage of the world's most successful search engine, and see what information is floating around the web. You will likely see your product discussed on websites you didn't know existed.
  • Reviews - If your industry is covered by trade magazines, keep your eyes peeled for product reviews. Such reviews are usually quite honest, and will often cover details about product documentation.
  • Conventions - If your company hosts conventions for users, get yourself invited. Talk to your users face to face and ask what they think of the documentation. Some may admit to never reading it; others might impress you with their familiarity of the content. Ask while you have the chance, and be prepared with questions.

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