Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
The forgotten, yet passionate, middle
Mark Bernstein's essay Unreasonable argues, among other things, that our culture perpetuates the belief that software professionals are idiot savants, and that users are simple minded children who shouldn't have to think when they sit down in front of a computer. As a result, there is little room in the market for intelligent discussion of deep software products.
His observation strikes me as true, and I think it also applies to the domain of product documentation and help systems. Instructional designers always work with an audience in mind, but that "ideal type" rarely includes the broad middle range of intermediate users.
Here's a fun exercise to try: Take a manual for a product that you know well and markup each section with who you think the writer is addressing--beginners, intermediate, or advanced users. Then calculate the percentage of the book dedicated to each type of audience. If there is a gap in the middle, as there often is, ask yourself if the documentation is truly serving the product's best interests. Expert information in a beginner's manual befuddles new users. Manuals that are too dumbed down infuriate the experts. Those who somehow manage to graduate from being newbies? Well, I guess they'll figure it out.