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How a Solid User Documentation Plan Can Save Time and Money During Product Launches

Orbis | October 27, 2020

Product managers working in manufacturing organizations typically have a lot on their plate — everything from product design and development to materials and manufacturing specs, process workflows, and

Typically, there are various support materials that need to be ready by the launch date (or even sooner). In our experience, it’s all too common for such documentation to be incomplete when the product starts shipping — and the repercussions can range from mild annoyance to confusion and even chaos.

The connection between user documentation and successful launches

When most people think about the launch of a new product, they naturally think of its design and features, branding, sales and distribution channels, and so on. What may be less obvious is the array of supporting documents that customers need when installing, configuring, and using the product, such as:

  • Installation instructions
  • User/operator manuals
  • Service manuals
  • Troubleshooting guides
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Quick start guides

Less obvious still are the various documents that the manufacturer needs for certain internal and external audiences — which can include employees, regulatory bodies, and channel partners. Materials in this category can include:

  • Compliance documentation
  • Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
  • Process workflows
  • Field service training
  • Sales training

Without adequate user documentation, new customers may be confused about proper installation, leading to calls into customer service. Alternatively, existing customers may be frustrated by the lack of clear instructions when something goes wrong with their product. Ideally, all of these materials would be ready before the product launches. Training materials, for example, can be even more useful if they’re ready in time to get customer service reps or tech support up to speed before the calls start flooding the help desk.

Timing matters

There’s a sweet spot in terms of the timing of documentation development, and it has a direct bearing on your costs in time and money. Create your documentation too early, and you may miss some changes in product specs or design that occurred late in the process. Create it too late, and you risk not having adequate support documentation ready when the product ships. Either way, you may end up spending more time and effort redoing your materials, or racing to develop them at the last minute.

On the other hand, your documentation planning process should start early, and proceed on a parallel track with the development of the product itself. The first step is to determine exactly what documentation needs to be ready when; for instance, service documentation may not be needed at product launch, but shortly afterwards. Next, identify the order in which you should create your necessary documentation. For example, leveraging content from the user manual to produce training materials is more efficient than developing them in silos. Then, create your documentation development schedules based on stability of the new product, priority, and planned content reuse. These factors and the launch date will quickly reveal how many technical writers, and possibly instructional designers, will be required to get the new product support materials done on time.

Who does the work?

In many cases, a critical part of managing the documentation process is simply making sure you have the resources lined up and ready to go. If your organization is big enough and you have dedicated and capable staff, this can be easily done. More frequently, in our experience, organizations take a somewhat ad hoc approach to documentation.

There can be several problems with such an approach, including:

  • internal staff can lack the bandwidth to produce the necessary documentation by a target date
  • not everyone is suited to writing or producing the materials — including in many cases the very people who may know the most about the product itself
  • the repercussions for missed deadlines can be significant

Consider the hypothetical case of a simple installation guide in which two steps are transposed. There will be a lot of confused customers who try repeatedly to make the installation work, only to give up and call into customer service. If the organization is swamped with calls, they may pull in some of their engineers to work with customers. That may make sense — except that they’re now playing the role of customer service reps, and no longer working on their current projects, potentially causing delays that could impact your bottom line.

Finding a partner

For these reasons, it can be highly effective to partner with a firm of experts who are familiar with the development of product documentation. Professionals will know which of your subject matter experts need to provide input for which documents, and how to write about the product for different purposes and audiences. Your customers get the clearly written, accurate documentation they need, your customer service reps get less avoidable calls, and your engineers can stay focused on creating your next killer product.