What can the tabloids teach a tech writer?

Do you know how Kate Moss feels about her million dollar tattoo? Are you familiar with the secrets of Tom Cruise’s scientology marriage? Do you even know who Elizabeth Olsen is?


Well, maybe you need to put your structured authoring aside for one minute. Take a break from your bulleted lists and procedural steps. Check your ‘content snobbery’ at the door and explore what is going on in the real world of reader-engagement.

We tech writers are always complaining that no one reads the online help. We work so hard to make sure it’s accurate, up-to-date, comprehensive and concise. So, why do so many ungrateful users ignore it?  The hard truth—because it’s quite boring.  A desperate user may turn to our carefully crafted instructions when things go wrong, but they will never say:

“Now, I’ll just make a lovely cup of tea, put my feet up and read that online help”.

What can we do to change this perception? Well, I think we can take a few lessons from the world of tabloid journalism. This morning, I locked the kids in the house and escaped to the garden to read the Sunday newspaper. As usual, I worked my way through the main news; politics, economics and social dysfunction. Then it was time for dessert—the Sunday Magazine.

Yes, it’s full of celebrity gossip and sensationalist voyeurism (something we might find hard to match) but the appeal goes deeper than that. The variety of content and the way it’s presented just draws you in and keeps you reading. And many of the strategies they use, could work for us too:

Letter from the Editor (with photo)

The section where the editor shares a funny anecdote and talks about the featured articles. Wouldn’t it be great if the writers could introduce themselves, talk about their favourite software feature and describe what it was like to document it?

Letters from the readers

The part where Barry from Brighton can have his say. Sure, you can be social and let people add comments at the end of your help topic but highlighting the gems in a pull quote raises things up a notch.

Mixed layouts

Online help has a predictable look and feel—convenient for us technical writers but not so thrilling for our readers. Could we subvert the dominant paradigm and do something like this:

Divide the content into boxes labeled WANT, NEED, READ. More compelling than the usual ‘About XYZ’, ‘Procedure’ and ‘Related Topics’

Ask the expert

Like the original agony aunt. We could mine our overflowing FAQs for the most popular content.

Photos, lots of photos

Tech writers have a penchant for screen grabs—sometimes useful but not very engaging. Infographics and photos of real people (maybe using the software in different contexts) could bring the content to life.

My day on a plate

Where readers describe what they eat in a day. I find it strangely riveting. We could ask a user to describe the tasks they do in a typical day.

Fun factoids

Little boxes that contain a single interesting fact—something like “20% of our users work in universities” or  “in a recent survey, queries were nominated as the most used feature”.

Of course, we are always at the mercy of our delivery platforms and layouts are largely dictated by what browsers and mobile devices will support. But I think some of these ideas could work. I’m going to try them out in my next post ‘Does your help content need a makeover?’

And if you find out who that Olsen girl is, please let me know. I spilt my tea on that bit.


3 thoughts on “What can the tabloids teach a tech writer?

  1. I enjoyed reading this, even though I don’t know who Elizabeth Olsen is either. I think I’d be satisfied knowing that people only read my help when they’re in trouble — as long as I also knew that it got them out of trouble. But I like your ideas for making that content more engaging. I think you’re really saying that online help needs to be more human: about the people who use the application rather than about the application.

    If we can remember that….Well, I still don’t know if anyone will sit down with a cup of tea to read the help. But surely they’ll want to read it more often than they do now.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Larry – it’s my first! You’re absolutely right. I do think we could do more to ‘humanize’ our online help. We get so caught up in making sure that our content is accurate and consistently formatted that we can lose sight of what makes it readable. I’m looking forward to exploring this idea in future posts.

  2. Thank you, Kath!! I was beginning to feel like I was the only one to see this missed opportunity. Most of my tech writing has been for an IT Pro audience, but I recently had the pleasure of writing in-house online help for an non tech (even anti-tech) audience. I used techniques I learned from sites like Copyblogger.com to make the information more approachable. Things like starting off by stating the problem the topic will solve, and making a point of using your audience’s search terms in the text.

    My favorites were the short-short video screen captures. The topic would read: “It’s easy to solve problem X. This video shows you how to do it in 15 seconds or less.” Then comes the video and the step by step directions. I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to solve a problem in 15 seconds? People felt more empowered, and less likely to call Help Desk for every little thing.

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