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Great Technical Writing: Tell Your Users What To Expect
OVERVIEW In your User Documentation, you direct your Reader to perform tasks with your product. If you don't tell your Reader what to expect when performing those tasks, you will have a baffled Reader, resulting in dissatisfaction and expensive calls to technical support. EXAMPLE: REVERSE OSMOSIS WATER FILTER I bought and installed a Reverse Osmosis water filter. The instructions told me to fill, and then empty (the instructions foolishly used the term "dump," which would have caused the destruction of the system) the tank. The filter had a capacity of about 100 gallons per day. Thus I expected the initial fill (4.5 gallon tank) to take less than one hour. After about an hour the tank was still filling. Worried, I called the technical support. I was told that it takes about two hours for the tank to fill. One line in the User Documentation would have eliminated that call: "The tank initially takes 2 hours to fill." Not knowing what to expect I, and perhaps other Users, wasted the time and money to call the technical support line. EXAMPLE: UPGRADING A ROUTER'S SOFTWARE I had some problems with my Cable/DSL (Internet-Ethernet) router. The internal control panel made it easy to check for and download updates to the internal software. The system told me that it would take a few minutes to check for updates (good), but it did not tell me how long the update would take to perform once I downloaded the file. Not telling the User what to expect in terms of time is a mistake. I started the update and after a few minutes of operation (was it working?) I canceled the process. I re-started it again, and decided to wait longer to see what happened. It took a few minutes longer, and successfully completed. It would only take a simple phrase such as "the software update can take up to five minutes to complete" to reduce the User's anxiety. PROGRESS INDICATORS (as displayed in a windowing environment) are often useless. Some go beyond 100%, others are logarithmic: they move quickly in the early processing and wait, seemingly at the end, for a long time while processing is completing. Consider making progress indicators relate to the time of operation, not number of files. Some progress/activity indicators have nothing to do with the program they are associated with. I have used virus checkers that have abnormally terminated, yet the activity indicator kept on moving. Make sure that progress/activity indicators do reflect activity of the associated program. FILE DOWNLOADS DO IT Telling the User what to expect is not a new concept. If you have ever downloaded files, the download site will often tell how long the file will take to download, based upon your Internet connection. EXAMPLE: YOUR PRODUCT'S INDICATORS While most examples of "telling the User what to expect" deals with the time needed to complete an activity, others can be related to the indicators and performance of the product. I have a small smart battery charger that has a red light for each of the battery positions. Unfortunately, the operation of these lights is impossible to understand, and there is no description of how they work. Here's what happens. When you first insert the battery, the light illuminates. A short while later (the charging still has many hours to go), the light goes off. Sometime toward the end of the charging cycle the light may go on again. This is clearly confusing to the User. The User's expectation is that when the light goes out, the charging is completed. This would result in a lot of User frustration, as Users would try to use "charged" batteries that were not charged. The developers of the battery charger should explain the operation of these displays. THE BOTTOM LINE Tell the Users what to expect as they use your product. Often this information is the amount of time it will take for an operation to complete. For other products, you may have to tell the User what the indicators mean. Don't leave your document Readers confused or left to figure things out on their own. Doing so will reduce your Users' comfort with your product, and increase your technical support costs.