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Great Technical Writing: Don't Let Your Product's Features Become Expensive Flaws


Your product's unexplained features can turn into costly flaws. This article describes three real-world products with just such "features." It presents ways you can prevent these feature-to-flaw conversions by improving the User Documentation for your products.


1. A Wand that Came with a Coffee Maker

I got a fancy electric coffee maker. In the box was a strange, and unexplained, object. It looked like a white plastic spoon, but where the bowl of the spoon should be was a mesh bag with something inside it. It did not seem to be made to assemble into the coffee maker.

There was nothing in the User Manual, or on the box, or any package insert that described this object.

I went back to where the coffee maker was bought, and asked about this object. The shopkeeper phoned the company, and later got back to me.

How much would we estimate the calls cost? Why did this time and money have to be spent?

(The device was a water filter. The User is to stir it in the water before making the's supposed to remove impurities.)

Solution: Attach a tag to the wand. On the tag, explain what the wand is, its benefits, how to use it, and (in a nod to marketing) where to purchase more.

2. MP3 Player Backlight

My MP3 player has a backlight that illuminates when you press any button on the player. It has a nice, battery-saving feature, also. When the battery level drops below a preset amount, the backlight on the player will no longer come on. Excellent design idea.

A new User plays the MP3 player for a few hours, the battery runs down, and the backlight no longer works.

Unfortunately, the battery-saving feature is not documented. Even if the User searched the documentation, this feature would not be found.

The User's point of view can be summed up by one question: "How come my backlight no longer works?"

Followed by an action plan:

. "I'll call technical support."
. "I'll return this defective product."

Are these action plans not expensive to the company?

Solution: Mention this backlight behavior both as a feature (perhaps in the discussion about battery life) and also in the troubleshooting portion of the User Document.

3. Hold Switch

Most portable electronic devices have a "hold switch." This is a switch (or button combination) that locks the device so its controls cannot accidentally be activated. Feature.

It is quite possible that the hold switch can get accidentally moved to the "hold" position. Now none of the controls on the device work. The User, who may have never heard of the hold switch, is now faced with a "defective" product. Expensive Flaw.

. How many technical support calls have been made because of a hold switch?
. How much stress was created by these "defective" products (even if the User did eventually figure out about the hold switch).

Solution: Describe the Hold Switch both as a feature (where you discuss the controls on the device) and also in the troubleshooting portion of the User Document.

Great User Documentation

Great User Documentation provides the information that your Users need, and the means to effectively access that information, finding what they need, and skipping over what they don't.

Great User Documentation creates Users who are effective and comfortable with your products. These Users:

. Recommend your product to others
. Cost your organization less (reduced product returns and fewer technical support calls)
. Will buy your products in the future

About the Author: Barry Millman, Ph.D., has been a consultant for over 25 years, an instructor, course developer, and award-winning speaker. For the past seven years he has been researching and creating resources to help organizations create great User Documents. Visit: for resources to help you create the content and access that your Users want and need.

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