There's a lot of buzz lately about how consumers are abondoning official documentation in favor of search engines and other resources. If you haven't heard it, you probably aren't listening.
Every time a user searches Google for information on your product, they are giving you an unvoiced opinion about the inadequacy of your documentation. They are likely acting on one of three assumptions: a) You don't have the answers, b) You don't have time to listen to their particular questions, or c) Your corporate process for facilitating communication in a cost-effective manner completely annoys them.
Your well-crafted manual may appease your legal department and follow the corporate style guide to the letter, but that won't stop your customers from trash-canning it.
Documentation should not be built upon pre-conceved notions of what users need. Instead, analyze what resources they actually use, and build a presence there. This may be search engines, forums, Twitter, or a phone call to a friend. But it's your job to find out where they get their information, and to provide an authoritative and accurate alternative.
This shouldn't be a difficult concept for technical writers to understand. We already know enough to take our users' existing knowledge and skill level into account when we write documentation. But what about their existing preferences for how that documentation is delivered? Has a single one of your customers told you they wanted a shrink-wrapped manual in six languages, or a robust help system documenting every last detail of how your product works (but not a single detail on how to best use it)?
As the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto so clearly pointed out, customers don't want to talk to your corporate facade. They want direct, one-to-one communication with the experts (real people!) that make your products. If you don't get how social media fits into this picture, your competitors are going to steal your Twinkies and leave you crying on the sidewalk.
Just talk to people. Or at least write as if you are talking to them. Get involved in their communities and become one of them. The closer your documentation can come to a one-to-one conversation that answers their specific needs, the more customer love and product evangalism you'll get. So what if this means giving customers your email address, or even (gasp!) your phone number. Isn't that what email and telephones are for?
Write targeted, granular content that answers real questions from customers. Use technology and social media tools to strengthen your relationship, not to hide from customers behind the corporate firewall.
I'm not advocating that you rock the boat. I'm advocating that you completely change it's direction before you go over the waterfall. One-way corporate communication is the wrong direction; it leads away from happy users, not toward them. Don't be on that boat.
Yes, what I'm talking about is scary. You have to be real, join the conversation, risk saying something stupid, and try your best to help people, all while sorting out the details of messy corporate guidelines about interacting with customers.
But the alternative is even scarier.
If customers aren't reading your documentation, then what is your purpose? Attention is money, and consumers won't let you waste theirs.