A Concrete Strategy For Cultivating Empathy In Documentation
Technical writers talk a lot about being empathetic with readers. I agree that it's a crucial skill but frankly I think that the discussion is starting to degenerate into lip service. We need more concrete guidance on how to cultivate empathy in our documentation. In this post I propose that it's our duty as technical writers to start recording our real-world first experiences with documentation and share these recordings with other technical writers so that we can see what it's truly like to use documentation when in need.
Work mindset versus task mindset
As a technical writer I review documents all the time. It usually goes like this. A colleague writes a guide and asks me to walk through it and verify that it's usable and complete. I've got 3 deadlines haunting me, so I do what's asked of me and nothing more. I have no intention of actually using this product in my life. I'll call this the work mindset.
My mindset and behavior when I'm reading documentation because I actually need to get a task done is very different than the work mindset. I feel an obsessive craving to get the task done, sometimes quickly. I'm often uncertain about whether the document is actually relevant to my task. Even my browsing patterns are different. I'll call this second mindset the task mindset.
Getting feedback on my documentation from someone in the task mindset is much more valuable than getting feedback from someone in the work mindset. The task mindset person has skin in the game. They really need my documentation to get something done.
Therein lies the rub
But here's the dilemma. People in the task mindset are focused on completing the task. Leaving feedback on my documentation is the last thing on their mind. If you have the opportunity to watch people use your documentation while they're in the task mindset, then that's as good as it gets. I don't have access to these people. I suspect most technical writers don't.
There is one person that I always have access to while he's in the task mindset, though... myself!
I know when I'm in the task mindset. In other words, I know when I'm reading a document because I'm truly relying on that document to help me get a task done. And I know how hugely valuable this information is to the author. So I now view it as my duty as a technical writer to record my experiences with that documentation while I'm in the task mindset. If all technical writers start doing this, I wager that we will generate a wealth of surprising insights around how to better serve people while they are in the task mindset.
How exactly do you record your thoughts and behaviors while in the task mindset? At first I tried writing down my thoughts and behaviors, but it was too tedious and interruptive. And then I had an aha moment... I can just record myself! In the video below that's exactly what I started doing. The solution to the "problem" that I encountered in the video is hilariously cliché. If you're a frequent user of VS Code --- I'm not --- the solution is going to be maddeningly obvious.
By watching that video even I learned some interesting stuff about myself when I'm in the task mindset:
- My first debugging strategy was to try restarting the server. The old "take the cartridge out and blow on it" approach.
- Next I scanned the guide. I immediately went to Google Search once I hit the end of the document.
- The top 3 Search results didn't seem relevant so I didn't even bother scrolling beyond that. I didn't try a different query, either.
- Next I scanned the code samples looking for any obvious locations where I had forgotten to add some code.
- Through lots of debugging experience I had a pretty good intuition that my code was correct.
- Finally, my long-term memory seemed to kick in, do a scan of past debugging experiences, and realize that my unfamiliarity with VS Code was another relevant variable here. In other words, my mind realized that the problem might be related to the code editor, not the code.
Obviously this is just one anecdote. I'm not saying that my behavior represents the behavior of all users. But hopefully you get the point about how more concrete these recordings are than the vague descriptions that are usually used to explain documentation empathy.
For software products, screencasts of you thinking out loud are probably good enough. For physical products, you could just set up a camera on a tri-pod and point it at yourself, again thinking out loud while you work through the task. You might not even need to think out loud. I was able to write that list above after the fact because the video helped me remember what I was thinking every step of the way. Being recorded is awkward at first but I have a feeling if I do it enough then I'll forget that the camera is watching me.
To make this data useful to the author, it's helpful to describe how experienced of a user we are with regards to that product. In the description of the video here's how I describe myself:
Background context: I consider myself an intermediate web developer. I build toy applications a lot but have never worked on a massive-scale production project. Because I work on Google Web DevRel I have a pretty good mental model of the web at large. A few months back I had completed the Tour Of Heroes tutorial  from the official docs so I wasn't completely new to Angular, although I had forgotten most of the specifics. I also hadn't used VS Code in probably over a year. I usually use Vim.
I guess one could argue that technical writers are too aware of the documentation experience and therefore do not represent real users. My rebuttal to that is to remember that I'm talking about recording your experiences while you're in the task mindset. In the task mindset technical writers are as much "real" users as anyone else. If anything, our awareness of the documentation experience might generate even more valuable feedback because we're more sensitive to how the document is helping or failing.
The next time that you're in the task mindset, consider recording your experiences. You're gonna read the docs anyway, you might as well record it for the benefit of the technical writing community at large. And by watching these videos, you will develop a deeper understanding and empathy for what it's really like to read documentation while in the task mindset.
If you start doing this please email your recordings to email@example.com so that I can aggregate them.