Posted by: eliz_beth | November 2, 2011

Tip Day #2 – Getting People to RTFM (read the manual!)

Yesterday’s post brought a comment and twitter comment asking how to get people to read the documentation that you’ve worked so hard on. There really isn’t anything like the frustration one feels when they are asked a relatively simple question if in fact one had read the documentation provided!

In Field of Dreams, the voices whispered “If you build it, they will come”. Well my friend, neither of us is Kevin Costner and we are not playing baseball. Writing documentation just one component of educating your users. Remember in school and how many people did not complete reading assignments? Or just purchased the cliff notes versions or looked online if you’re recently out of schoo, for the synopsis of the material? Exactly. You’re fighting years of bad habits, apathy, poor scholarship, and multi-media presentations versus a seemingly boring old document.
Here’s some ideas on how to fight it:

1- Create a great document. See the previous day’s tips and add to them– make sure the document uses color and is printed in color. Provide the long and short forms (original and Cliff Notes version, we’ll call it the SaaSy version). Spell check it, have someone else edit it for any problems and make the corrections before providing it out to anyone. You know someone who gets upset when they see a comma out of place- use them to strengthen your writing.

2- Consider the media for the document. Having a basic word document is fine and will get your point across. Creating an interactive document will help spurn on learning- they have to interact with the document, your odds are better they will finish it. ramification in effect- or just appealing to the learning styles of the younger generation or apply it as a novelty to the older generation.

3- Get management to stand behind the requirement of knowledge. Management can do this in many ways including pop questions regarding the information, rewards for those who adopt the new information quickly, showing their level of understanding when working with users, supporting you in not giving direct answers (more on this in a minute), and also consider some sort of disciplinary tactic if necessary.
Let management set the tone that your documentation is important and it is expected that all read and understand the information.

4- Don’t answer questions that are directly answered in the document, instead redirect users to the document. Tell them where to find it in the document even (p4, paragraph 2) but don’t tell them what the document says. This doesn’t stop them from going to others and asking them, but if the culture is built where the expectation is each person truly responsible for their own education, this can flourish.

5- Back up your documentation with a webinar or conference call. Taking 30 minutes or less to review the document with the team and get their feedback can be great information to modify the document for higher adoption or to consider for the next project,

6- Beat your users with wet noodles– no no no, that will not work, sorry for leaving it in here…

7- Make sure the documents are not hidden somewhere and are located where users can quickly reference them. In the same vein, make sure users are told they even exist.

8- Add some humor in your pieces– use funny but non-offensive names/places/situations in your document examples.

9- I believe in documenting everything, but recognize that not everything needs to be read by everyone. Make check lists of relative documents to different roles and profiles. Sometimes being given permission to read less than what you think is expected can spurn on reading.

10- Get feedback from the users of your documentation and use it in creating the next form.

No, there’s no magical way to make users read. If there was I think I’d be quite rich by now! Know your product, know your audience, and be willing to try new things to encourage adoption. And don’t be afraid to call them out on not having read the manual. Remember, for those who do take the time and read the manual, it is excellent job security. 🙂


  1. Step 3 is the issue I have. Management doesn’t want to read the manual.

    Step 6. Wet noodles are not effective. I’m still trying to get legal approval to Taser employees. I think it will work.

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