Step 5: Guiding your users to the information they need
Have you ever gone on a white-water rafting trip? If you like outdoor adventure, it’s a great experience. The river is wild and beautiful, the rapids are thrilling, and paddling is excellent exercise. You can enjoy it all without ever wondering about where you’re going or which route will get you there. You don’t need to think about that because your raft is steered by a guide, an expert whose job is to make sure you enjoy the trip and reach your destination safely.
In a way—okay, nowhere nearly as exciting a way—this is the experience you want to give users of the documents you write. As a writer, you’re acting as a guide, too. You want to make sure those who work with your documentation can easily find what they need, so they don’t give up and look elsewhere or ask for help. In Step 5 of our 6 Steps to Better Compliance Documentation, Guiding your users to the information they need, we discuss ways you can give users quick, easy access to the information they’re looking for.
The writer as guide
As a writer of compliance-related documents, it’s helpful to think of yourself as a guide. Writing clear, easily understood content is only half the battle—you also need to make sure that your document includes access aids that support quick retrieval of information. This is an area sometimes neglected by writers, although it’s growing in importance as users depend more and more on their ability to retrieve information from electronic repositories. Thinking of yourself as the expert who “knows the river” can help you provide users with the guidance they need.
Observe users and ask questions
Start by taking some time to observe users when they’re trying to find information. Ask them where they go to find it, and see how long it takes them to locate what they need.
Pay attention to the documents themselves. Are online manuals easy to navigate, or do you see users becoming lost and discouraged after several clicks? If they’re hard copy, have users modified them with sticky notes and bookmarks? These are “home-made” access aids—take note of where they’ve been deployed. Have users made copies of controlled documents? Are they seeking help from coworkers, supervisors, or help desks? These are all symptoms that access aids either aren’t in place or aren’t working as well as they should.
Create access aids to guide users to necessary detail
Very often, when users can’t locate information they need it’s because necessary details aren’t where they belong. They may have been relegated to appendices or stuck in other places where they’re hard to find. Even if employees eventually figure out how to locate these details, auditors probably won’t. You can make information more accessible by paying attention to your use of
- tables of contents,
- titles and labels, and
Charts, tables, lists, and graphics are also useful for making important information stand out.
Tips for helping users find information quickly
As you develop your document, ask yourself these questions:
- Are you creating sufficient access aids, such as a table of contents and an index? Are you creating hyperlinks in the right places?
- Are you calling attention to important information by using titles and labels, and making sure they’re clear, concise and descriptive?
- Can you identify areas where a chart, a table, a list or other graphic would help clarify the information?
- Is the information stored and distributed in a way that makes it available when and where it’s needed?
Next time, we’ll conclude our series on improving your compliance documentation with a discussion of reusable information.