Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Be Precise

This post originally appeared on The Software Life, thoughts and experiences from the world of commercial and open source software.

I’m sure all of us have used the Help feature on a software program and been frustrated and annoyed because it didn’t make sense or didn’t answer our question.

One of my goals as a technical writer is to develop a good relationship with the customer. I want them to turn to the documentation feeling confident that it will help them complete their task quickly and successfully. I don’t want to confuse or antagonize them.

Avoid Confusion
I prepare the online documentation for customers of an integrated trucking and accounting software package. I used to use the verb “select” when telling customers to pick the appropriate option on a pull-down menu.

Fortunately, one of the trainers pointed out to me that this was really confusing for the customers because there was a Select button at the bottom of many of the screens. Now, I only use the word “select” if I am referring to this button.

The Help carefully distinguishes between “placing a checkmark in the checkbox” and “generating a check.” And we deliberately use the American spelling of “check” so as not to irritate or confuse American customers.

We consistently refer to “Owner Operators” rather than switching back and forth between “Owner Operators,” “Leased Carriers,” and “Third-Party Contractors.”

Don’t Annoy the Customer
I try and write the Help from the user’s perspective: “you will not be able to invoice your Order until you do this” or “use this report to review outstanding trucking transactions.”

We used to say that the software would “allow” customers to do certain things, but we realized that the word “allow” was really condescending. Now, we use phrases such as “this screen will help you to . . . .”

We also try very hard to avoid jargon because it’s intimidating and makes readers feel stupid. Software programmers talk about “parameters” and “locking down.” The Help talks about “options” and “protecting.”

Writing Tips
Be precise, be consistent, consider your audience – good things to keep in mind whatever we’re writing.

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