Help systems and user guides are inevitably boring. Discuss.

are user guides voringRecently, I’ve been considering my style of writing style. One of the things most of us are taught when we first become technical authors is that a user/reader shouldn’t be able to tell which technical author wrote the help or manual, i.e. our style of writing should be homogenous – remove all individuality from your writing style. We’re told that this is especially crucial in a team environment so that there is total consistency in writing styles between the technical writers and therefore a uniform experience for the reader.

Now, I get that. I do. But the thing is, over recent years I’ve been getting an increasingly twitchy feeling that maybe the uniformity and consistency that is drummed into us is actually at a cost of that little bit of individual expression and creativity that might make a help system or user guide more readable. And maybe, just maybe, we in the technical authoring community haven’t got the balance quite right.

I’m not saying that technical authors should stop writing accurately and concisely. But the more I read or “experience” user assistance systems, help, manuals, etc., the more depressed I get by just how boring they are. I can’t name names, but if you read the help output of most large organizations (and smaller ones) you’re likely to see what I mean.

Of course, I realise that most users just want to quickly locate the key information or instructions, find out what they need to know, and get out of there back to their day job. But surely a really, really good help/guide would also entice the user to hang around a little and find out some more. Some of the best help I’ve read has done just that: I found myself enjoying reading it, not just because it was precise and aesthetically pleasing, but also because I enjoyed the style of writing. I’ve emphasised the enjoyment aspect because it’s so rare. When people ask me what I do for a living and I explain that I’m a technical writer, often they reply “oh, you write that boring documentation I can’t understand!”. Now, I like to think that my documentation is easy to understand but can I also claim that it’s interesting? Often not, sadly.

It may well be the case that some technical writers might be regarded as slightly, ahem, dull people, but I know that the majority aren’t. I’m pretty sure that most of us could write interesting prose, should we be asked to. Maybe our latent ‘interesting’ writing style deserves a little sunlight.

So, ask yourself – when was the last time someone read your help or manual, and said “I really enjoyed reading that”? Surely it’s possible to write in a way that is both precise and interesting. Isn’t it?

Conclusion

Do you, the wider technical writer community, feel this way too? Or am I wrong? Is there something inherent in the requirements of technical writing that means that our output needs to remain, frankly, rather boring?

Help systems and user guides are inevitably boring. Discuss.

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