Technical Writing ToolBox

A Blog on Technical Writing

7 Useful Insights about How People Read Documentation

Reading is a primary form of communication for most people and they have different habits of reading. Not surprisingly, different people read product documentation in different ways. But how do they read and why should we care about their reading habits?

A writer writes with a purpose. This purpose gives shapes to their thoughts and allows them to convert their body-less thoughts to words. A strong correlation exists between a writer’s purpose and use of the document.

The insight about how different audiences read documentation allows us to create better, focused, and useful content for our audiences. The book Technical Communication in the Twenty-First Century provides seven insights about how a reader might read a document:

1. Skim Quickly

An average reading speed can range from 200 to 350 words per minute. However, people read much faster than that by skimming information chunks. They only absorb the information chunk that seems important and ignore any other information available in the document.

2. Read Partially

Most people don’t even read the entire document. They may read a partial (usually top) portion of the document before moving to some other task. This is very common behaviour while using an online-help.  They only read the document until they figure out how to solve their problem and they stop reading it!

No wonder why most technical writers skim the introductory paragraphs and add instructions at top of the document  intended to be used as online-help.

3. Read Closely from Beginning to End

Alas, I wish there were audiences that still do that. Very few, if any, of your audience will ever read the document from beginning to end. I’m not talking about a thriller or a science fiction where the audience is glued to the characters and does indeed reads the document from beginning to end.

User’s Guides and Online help, unfortunately, are not very interesting and people only read them to quickly find information which they immediately need. And once they find what they were looking for, they run away from it (really!).

4. Revise and Return

Usually this relationship occurs between a peer reviewer or an editor and the author of the document. The document gets reviewed and returns along with the review comments.

Use of latest publishing technology has allowed this relationship to extend between a user and the author as well. With wikis, user can add comment in the published documentation and opens a channel between the author and a reader.

Interestingly, one of the most exciting part of blogging for me is the comments that follow my blog-posts. I love comments on my blog post that open a window of communication between my readers and me. I can revise my articles, correct incorrect facts, and get interesting titbits about the topic of the article. For example, I wrote an article about OmmWriter (a distraction free writing tool) and a reader commented that saving its output in one of the formats causes data loss!

5. Take some Course of Action

What is the use of writing an instruction which does not performs any action? Most of the instructions we write allows users to perform an action. User’s Guide, Online Help, Administrators guide and process guides are full of chapters that allows users to perform an action on the software.

6. Make a Decision

Most of the marketing collateral (aka business documentation) such as white papers, brochures, case studies, and catalogues fall in this category. People use these documents to make a decision about purchasing/adopting a new technology or a product.

7. Use it in Support of Other Documents

Documents such as Quick Start Guide, Installation guide, Cheat Sheet and other supporting documents supports the main documentation (usually User’s Guide and/or Online Help) for a product and allows a user to quickly find information S/He is looking for.

What does readers do with your documents? Do you have any insight to share about how people read documentation? I’d love to hear from you through your comments on this article.
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Image Credit: Stuart Miles & Ian Kahn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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4 responses to “7 Useful Insights about How People Read Documentation

  1. Vishwajit Vatsa May 7, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    great piece of write up!

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  3. Pingback: Nobody reads the documentation | Cage Nuts And Bolts

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