How to Create Effective, High-Impact Product Documentation

One of the most essential tasks enterprise content teams undertake is creating product documentation. Unless your customers understand what your product does, how it works, why it can make their lives better, and how to use it once they buy it, they’ll likely pass it by – or return it after they’ve bought it.

Many corporations have a dedicated team of technical writers to handle product documentation. However, if they’re off in their geek-speak silos, chances are that they’ll not write the type of copy that connects with your products’ users.

Enter a new way of doing business: content collaboration. When you encourage your technical writers to partner with your content marketing and support teams during content planning and creation, you’ll have documentation that is both accurate and understandable.

Consider Your Audience

Whether your audience will be the end users, potential buyers, or your prospects’ engineering department and technicians makes a huge difference in both the tone and scope of your product documentation.

For instance, for end users, your goal should be to make it easy to install, operate, and use your product. A more technical audience will want to know all the details about what makes your product tick, while potential buyers want to know how your product will solve their problem.

Technical audiences

Technical audiences generally prefer a no-nonsense tone. Third-person copy is usually the medium of choice for technical literature.

These audiences also demand perfect accuracy, so it will be critical for your content creators to partner with your subject matter experts on the details. But just because it’s a “just the facts, ma’am” version doesn’t mean that it must be boring. Use transition phrases to connect your writing, and avoid the passive voice like the plague, lest you put them to sleep.

Internal audiences

Writers often fall into the trap of using insider jargon when writing product documentation for internal teams. Take our advice. Just don’t.

Jargon is intellectual laziness. And, as the above video shows, it can even be dishonest, trying to make you look like you know more than you do or pulling a fast one on the C-suite. Instead, strive for copy and presentations that explain every detail in clear, concise language.

Prospective customers

Whether it’s an introductory brochure or a product description for a catalog or ecommerce listing, product documentation for your prospects needs to focus on your customers’ needs, as opposed to self-promotion. When you word a list of features with language that shows how those features satisfy your customers’ needs, you’re providing subtle nudges to buy your product without sounding salesy.

End users

People who have already bought your product want to get it up and running as quickly as possible – and they want to get the most use out of their investment. Write users’ manuals and create how-to videos with a confident tone.

Don’t overwhelm them with confusing directions or unfamiliar terminology. Instead, borrow a trick or two from your favorite childhood teacher and explain every step in an easy-to-follow style. In fact, if you have time, test your instructions with people unfamiliar with the product to make sure that your customers can carry out your instructions without a hitch.

Make Sure an Eighth Grader Can Understand Your Product Documentation

“Ah, but you don’t know our target customers,” you protest. “After all, they’re Ph.D.-level chemists and medical doctors!”

We respectfully call bull.’s Brian Scott put it best: “Your readers are not dumb; they just don’t have time to process and recall complicated messages.” Spot on. The more complex their lives, the less time they have to sift through legalese and your oh-so-pseudo-academic verbiage.

So, even though you might need to explain some highly technical concepts, write them in such a way that an eighth grader can understand. Define everything and assume nothing. Then, use a readability checker to test your copy before you publish it.

Here’s a tip: If your text contains technical terminology, such as names of chemical compounds, equations, citations, or the clinical names of illnesses, leave them out when you check readability. It’s what you say between the essential details that makes your readers’ jobs easier.

Otherwise, you’ll never get it to the readability level you need. Just be sure to define those terms within the text, especially if you’re writing for end users or laypeople.

Use Visual Illustrations for Instructions, Guides, and Owners’ Manuals

With 65 percent of the world’s population visual learners, it pays to use plenty of visuals in installation and operating instructions, owners’ manuals, and product guides. Users, especially first-timers, need to see every step, every part they’ll need to complete the step, and how the item will look after they’ve completed the step.

Make sure that the illustrations match the model you’re writing for exactly. If you’ve ever opened a new gadget, started installing it, started looking for the next part to attach, only to discover 20 minutes later that “Some models don’t have X part, ” you know the frustration of frantically searching online for the exact instructions for your exact model.

Also, since many users today prefer to learn how to install or operate an item on videos, consider providing a link to your video in the users’ manual. Make sure that your company’s YouTube and other video channels include these how-to videos among their selections.

Partner with Support and Sales to Create Product FAQs

Whether it’s before or after the sale, people will have questions about your product. Collaborate with your sales team to come up with a list of objections and feedback they hear out in the field. Then, use that feedback to create FAQs to help potential buyers feel more comfortable about purchasing your product.

Similarly, your support team will likely have a list of the types of issues customers have with your product. Help your customers troubleshoot in advance with a list of those issues, followed by the solution to them.

Doing so will build customer loyalty – which, as Outbound Engine’s Taylor Landis points out – can increase profits from 25 percent to 95 percent with only a five percent increase in customer retention.

Finally, Create a Customer-Friendly Index for Long-Form Product Documentation

Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to find the information you need about a product, especially when you’re having issues. Usually, that’s because the documentation doesn’t have an index – or the index isn’t user-friendly.

Before you publish, test your index on typical customers to make sure that they can find the information they need quickly. Often companies categorize various components differently than customers do.

Streamline the Product Documentation Process with an Efficient Content Platform

As we’ve pointed out, content management for product documentation must start with the customer and their needs and remain customer-centric in every product document you produce. Since that takes collaboration with your customer-facing teams, a content marketing platform where everyone involved can work in real-time can be a major time saver.

DivvyHQ can do just that. It’s a one-stop shop where everyone involved in product documentation – from subject matter experts to customer-facing teams – can partner with content creators to produce accurate, easy-to-understand copy.

We offer a free, no-obligation 14-day trial, so there’s no risk whatsoever. Sign up for your free trial today!