Love your audience, write less


Trying to withdraw some money from an ATM the other day my mind hit a blank. What was my PIN code? After three unsuccessful tries my card was blocked. Rather luckily i could alter my PIN the next day online. All I needed was a Login. The password was stored and the SMS code could not be the problem. After trying loads of Login names and numbers, checking if the fault was with my mobile number or SMS credit, i decided to call the help desk. They told me it had to be an eight digit number, which I finally found in an email. After that changing the PIIN went smoothly.

Thinking back it was not the ‘how’ that puzzled me, but the ‘what’. The workflow was clear, but not what i had to enter.

If you transpose this process to technical writing it is like describing a feature that has an Add, Edit and Delete functionality.

Many times have i seen these three processes written out in detail, which is rather superfluous. Here less is definitely more. Tell the user what fields are mandatory when he wants to edit. When he deletes an item only tell if a warning pop-up will show before deleting. Focus more on the ‘what’ then on the ‘how’.

The remarks I got were like: This script is not working, Windows 7 is no longer supported -why is it still in the manual, Customer should use this server port – please add it. Throughout my whole career I never got a complaint about an unclear process. That in itself is a message.

To minimalise content needs courage. Still, this distinguishes an experienced writer from a newbee.

Some tips:

  • The more intuitive your UI is the less you need to document. So, get into that meeting where developers decide how things should look. You represent the user, they don’t.  A simple field text does wonders.
  • Focus on what information a user needs, more than on how he should perform a certain task.
  • Leave out the self-evident: button, field, list, why name them?! Why describe where a Save button can be found on the UI, when there is only one visible in the window?
  • Use short sentences with simple words.
  • Write your manual like it is an online help; only the most important issues are mentioned.

My dream? To once create a user manual that only contains a list of error codes and solutions to the error problems. I am still dreaming. But trying to get there I am writing less and less and more concise. Just hoping my audience will love me for it.






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