Users don't *want* to RTFM

As I handle a good deal of the technical support calls around here, I’m constantly amazed at the questions that I get where the answers to these questions are in the documentation. My typical mantra has been: RTFM!

I’ve been reading a lot lately on usability, especially in the realm of web applications. Influences include Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think, the 37signals book Getting Real, as well as the Creating Passionate Users blog. These readings have been causing me to rethink my mantra, and question my possibly old-school thinking that good documentation prevents support calls. The truth is that users don’t want to read the docs – they just want to use the product. Well, that’s not even entirely true – they want the product to just do its job, and get out of the way, so the user can accomplish the real task at hand, whatever that might be (in our market of business software, the users just want to do their job!). The product/application should assist the user, enable the user, but not get in the way.


Matt from 37signals writes:

The attitude behind “RTFM” reveals an interesting bias. It assumes there’s one manual…THE manual. But that’s a company perspective, not a customer perspective. Customers have to use dozens of products each day that come with manuals, not just the one product you make. It’s not that they’re lazy bums who don’t want to read the manual. They just don’t want to read all those manuals.

Kathy Sierra commented:

If we want users to RTFM , we need to make a better FM. (which might not even be in print, depending on the product… it could be an online help system of some form)

If the manuals were as engaging and seductive as the material we make when we’re trying to convince someone to BUY something, they might be a lot more likely to at least crack it open. My theory has always been that we ought to divert marketing funds (and potentially some of the marketing or advertising ‘talent’) and put it into user learning materials.

In a similar vein, I was troubled and confused by a comment I recently received from one of our customers. She was having problems installing one of our products. After helping her through the task at hand, I asked her to reflect on the experience, and I asked her some specific questions, one of them being Do we need to provide better explanations for each step in the process? Her response: Yes, it needed better explanation for those of us who think we already know how to install the application without reading the documentation first. So what does that mean? We should be providing better documentation for those that don’t read the doc? What the…???
I think the answer is that the documentation AND the product need to be enhanced.

I’m excited that we finally have a real communications specialist on staff, Melissa, who has some great ideas and strategies for helping us improve our products and our materials, included printed materials, online help, and even pushing into multimedia.

Come to think of it, I don’t want to RTFM either…