Some of these ideas are from Mark Baker’s blog, Every Page is Page One.
The first challenge of documentation is to get the user to use the product. It doesn’t matter how usable it is if it is so off-putting in appearance that no one tries to use it.
Some of the things we document are complicated, but it doesn’t mean that every individual task, feature, or concept needs to be complicated. Throwing all the content in the user’s face when they look for help with something simple is distracting. It only serves to discourage users from trying and learning.
Take the classic tri-pane help system. It may be full of utility–multiple ways to view and navigate the content, multiple buttons to push to move around it in different ways. But, it screams “Look how big and complicated I am. Look at how many pages there are. Look at how deep they are nested. Look at all these controls you will have to use to navigate me!”
A PDF is far less usable than a well-organized online help system, but it is actually clearer. It presents a single pane and a search box, and everyone knows how to use a PDF. Videos are even better, but they are lousy for many tech comm tasks — tedious, impossible to navigate, impossible to search, impossible to use for reference— but their entire interface is a single triangular button. No wonder users ask for PDFs and videos even when they are not appropriate or usable. They just look so much better.
With the web, the user is not restricted to a TOC or index — you can offer relevant links on every page that allow them to move effectively through the content without ever being aware of how extensive it is or how complex the product is. If they want to explore any of the topics, they can do so simply by clicking a link. Each topic is a navigation hub.
Adopting this view of organization is important because as our content becomes larger and more dynamic, it becomes more and more difficult to navigate using a fixed table of contents. Seeing everything at once is too overwhelming or general, and artificially segmenting it is too confining.
With the web model, you can create documentation that looks simple while remaining thorough and comprehensive in the depth of its coverage. This way, you can have a large information set with manageable navigation at every point, but still have the ability to travel very far across it.