People will read

Last July Ryan Pitts and Sara Schnadt led a session at SRCCON about human-driven design. It wrapped up with a discussion of various maxims that guide design processes. Someone in the room said it was important to remember that, “users won’t read, ever.” That rubbed me the wrong way at the time and I went on a mini-rant in the session. I was thinking back to this recently and wanted to sketch the idea out into a longer post.

The perception that people don’t, and won’t, read documentation is not uncommon. There’s a reason we have the acronym RTFM after all. I think it’s a perception that’s horribly misguided and short-sighted for your product.

People will read. What they won’t do is unquestioningly read on your terms.

Treat docs as product

When you’re developing a product you don’t ship something and passively wait around for it to become popular. If what you shipped isn’t gaining traction you iterate. You tweak and adjust until your product fits its addressable market.

For some reason we don’t approach documentation with the same mindset. Our predominant expectation is that we can ship docs and expect every person to read them. If the docs have up-to-date screenshots, are detailed, and are searchable then that’s enough. If people don’t read, that’s their fault not yours. That’s a fundamentally broken expectation.

Most importantly, if you react to support requests by wondering why people can’t read the docs then you are missing a golden opportunity. You are directly blaming the person using your product instead of blaming your product for requiring documentation in the first place.

Exploratory & Prompt-Driven Users

Part of the RTFM-mindset stems from an assumption that everyone is an exploratory learner. That’s wrong. It’s arguably true for many tech folks. That doesn’t make it true for many people using our products.

Exploratory people will find their own way. They are comfortable with uncertainty. They’ll use a confusing product and feel confident relying upon documentation for answers. To them this is part of the appeal. Each awkward setting or obtuse workflow is an opportunity to master the intricacies of yet another product.

Prompt-driven people will read docs, but it’s not their default. They will first look to your support team for help. You could also think of them as human-reliant people. Interactions with your support team may prompt them to read and reference docs. So it’s not that they won’t read. It’s more that they prefer human interactions to help guide them.

Here’s the thing about prompt-driven people: they are a potential gold mine of qualitative feedback. There is no better source of information to help guide your product teams. Yes, this means your support team has more tickets to respond to in the short-term. That’s a great thing.

Every one of those interactions is an opportunity to learn more about how people use your product. If you choose not to take advantage of that and instead blame people for not reading your docs and leaving you alone in your cave, then that’s your loss. The next time you find yourself blaming a customer for overlooking the “obvious” answer in your docs, ask yourself whether you’re reading enough of what they’re telling you. More often than not I think it’s those building a product that don’t read, not our customers.

Thanks to Simon for helping clarify some of the wording in this post.