Published on September 24th, 2006 | by Rahel Bailie6
A Steep Price for Bad Documentation
In January 2005, Transport Canada, the civil aviation authority for airlines flying under a Canadian operating certificate, took a close look at a discount airline, Jetsgo, after one of their planes veered off a Calgary runway. In February, Jetsgo entered the beginning of their end. The Transport Canada inspectors revoked Jetsgo’s operating certificate when they discovered certain incomplete descriptions in the Jetsgo manuals. This forced Jetsgo to fly at lower altitudes, which in turn increased fuel consumption and, by mid-March, ultimately put the airline out of business.
The aviation industry is, understandably, serious about the state of the documentation. They understand that pilots or aircraft engineers using incomplete or incorrect content can have serious consequences. Bad documentation means that pilots cannot find the right procedure fast enough during an in-flight emergency, that maintenance crews make a repair that doesn’t properly fix a fault – in other words, that safety is compromised and people are likely to die. Good documentation is literally a matter of life or death.
The cost of creating any documentation is often a prickly point with management. Outside of regulated industries, where a minimum standard for documentation quality is enforced, the quality of documentation ranges wildly from the abysmal to absurd to excellent.
Skimping on documentation quality is often rationalized away by claiming that users don’t read it. The reality is that while customers don’t read a document from front to back, they do refer to the document when they’re in trouble. And when they can’t find that single, critical piece of information, their perceptions and expectations change. They stop using the documentation and revert to calling the vendor’s support line – a far more costly alternative to looking up an answer – because they assume that none of the needed answers will be found in the documentation.
This also starts the viral communication chain – word-of-mouth, forums, listserv, and blog posts, entries on complaint sites – criticizing the product. While more tech-savvy readers may identify the source of the problem as the documentation, consumers are more likely to think that the problem lies with the product itself, or see shoddy documentation as an extension of a shoddy product. The Consumer Electronics Association recognizes that the disconnect between product function and documented procedures is a significant contributor to their $10 billion-a-year product return problem.
Given that documentation is seen by customers as part of a consumer product, given the importance of good documentation to consumers as a purchase decision factor, and given that good documentation, among other things, decreases support costs, why is there a reluctance to make the investment to develop good user support materials? The answers, of course, are neither simple nor clear-cut, and are as context-specific as the question itself. Whether the reason is that management doesn’t understand the correlation between user experience and market success, that the brutal demand for high quarterly results postpones investment in user experience activities, or simply that there is a lack of awareness of what constitutes effective documentation, the results are the same: the end user gets short-changed.
The realization often comes at a steep price. Witness the documentation gap that triggered the Jetsgo demise, where commitment to safety is demonstrated by adhering to strict documentation quality and maintenance standards.
Coming up: Strategies for managing content in effort- and cost-effective ways.