Technical Writing - The Importance of User Feedback

It's happened to most of us. It's frustrating, time consuming, and creates a very poor impression. I'm referring to poorly written instructions. These instructions could be about anything such as assembling furniture, operating equipment, or learning software. How many times have we been confused and frustrated by product assembly instructions or user manuals in our daily lives?

One of your goals as a technical writer is to create documents that help the end user accomplish a task. And one technique you should use to improve the usability of your documents is to provide user feedback.

In the world of technical writing, user feedback refers to letting the end user know what to expect after he or she has performed a step in a procedure.

As a technical writer, you must strive to provide feedback to the user at crucial steps in the procedure. By letting the user know what to expect at different steps or stages of a procedure you are making life easier for him or her.

Let's look at an example. The following are five steps on how to navigate through a computer-based training program:

Follow these steps to view the different parts of this training program:

1. Click the Navigation button on the screen
2. To view video tutorials click the Videos button
3. Select the Case Studies button to download case studies
4. Click the Installation History button to see a list of 2007 installations
5. Click the Final Test button to take the final test

Now, let's rewrite these instructions with user feedback:

This training program consists of:

- Four video tutorials
- Six case studies
- A list of 2007 product installations
- A final test

Follow these steps to view the different parts of the training program:

1. Click the Navigation button on the top left part of your screen. This will bring up a Navigation bar on the bottom half of your screen.
2. To view video tutorials click the Videos button the Navigation bar. You will need Adobe Flash Player® to view these tutorials. If you don't have Adobe Flash Player® you can download it by clicking here.
3. Select the Case Studies button from the Navigation bar to download case studies. When you click this button, the Case Studies download will begin and will take approximately seven minutes to complete. The Case Studies will be downloaded to your desktop.
4. Click the Installation History button on the Navigation bar to see a list of 2007 installations.
5. Click the Final Test button on the Navigation bar to take the final test. The Final Test consists of 10 multiple choice questions and is based on the content in this training program. You will need a score of 80% or higher to pass the Final Test.

By providing feedback to the user you let the users know what to expect and are therefore preparing him or her. You are setting the level of expectation.

An easy exercise to become good at writing user feedback is to take a product's manual and rewrite the instructions with user feedback. Compare the original with what you write and evaluate the difference.

Providing user feedback is an often overlooked aspect of technical writing. But it is very important. You can use it to impress prospective clients or when you are looking for technical writing jobs. Let them know you are a strong advocate of providing user feedback. It benefits the end user which is the ultimate goal of every technical writer and every quality driven business.