Labored Instructions

Monsieur Winer recently bought a wireless adapter. As a former technical writer and occasional technical editor, I was intrigued to read his comment:

First the good news, it works. Now, more good news, all I had to do to configure it was click three times. It was able to figure out what kind of net connection I had, and automatically configured itself. The only small complaint I have about the setup is that the instructions are labored and complicated. Why not just say: First try it the simple way, it usually works, and that’s all you have to do. I guess someone in marketing didn’t trust the engineering?

I took a quick look, and found the Quick Install guide (PDF) for the Netgear Super G wireless desktop card. Dave’s absolutely right, those instructions are deeply over-written. The docs for this device should have consisted of a few pictograms, showing the CD going into a drive, followed by the adaptor being installed, followed by a screenshot of the wizard. If an installation wizard is well-designed, with clear, accurate instructions on the UI, it should require no documentation at all.

I would, however, question Dave’s assumption that Marketing determines what goes in the box in terms of documentation. In my experience of software companies, the Engineering or Tech Doc department always sets the requirements for the documentation. They tell Marketing what they’ll deliver, and Marketing’s only input is to quibble over cost. For every company I’ve worked with, I’ve always instructed Marketing as to the size and scope of the manuals.

This is as it should be, because the Tech Doc department is in a far better position than Marketing to judge the user’s first experiences with a new product. In my experience, Marketing rarely knows how the product works in any detail. This is no slight at Marketing (it’s where I work these days). They don’t need to know how the thing works, just how to make people buy it.

Clearly, though, this approach was a poor decision on the part of the Netgear technical writing staff.

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