The goal of end user documentation is to allow the user to fully access all of the abilities of a product without needing to use external support resources. End user docs should fully describe the product, how to use the product, the steps to access various aspects of the product, and have either an index (printed) or a search function (online) that allows them to look up any aspect of the product should they run into a problem.
Most user documentation is written using a task-oriented approach; defining the tasks a user needs to do, and documenting how to perform those tasks. Whereas most development documentation is function-oriented, a style which systematically explains each function, feature, or interface element of a product.
Function-oriented methodology is an invaluable approach for development teams, but is rarely successful when creating end-user documentation, as most users don’t care why something works, they just want to be able to make it work the way they need it to work, at that very moment. End users are trying to accomplish something right then, and they need documentation that can help them achieve that goal easily and quickly.
The Art of Documentation approaches end-user documentation by doing task analysis (what does the user need to do), and then organizes the information into easy to follow steps. Task analysis can derive from user interviews, usability studies and hands-on experimentation with the product itself. Documentation is then created that is easy to read, easy to follow, and easy to search.
The Art of Documentation has created end-user documentation in many forms; manuals, web pages, quick reference cards, built-in product help files, keyboard templates, sticky notes and smoke signals. Ok, the smoke signals didn’t work out as well as planned, but all the other modalities have created better informed, better educated users and reduced support needs and overhead.