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In last month's "Latitude 38," an entertaining and highly
candid tabloid for the Bay Area sailing community, there
was an interesting letter about bad documentation.
Seems that in the world of an electronic navigation aid
called LORAN, there's one particularly inexpensive unit
(name omitted to protect my innocent employer) that works
pretty well -- if you can figure out how. Although such
problems are often intertwined with a cryptic user interface,
the complaint, apparently, was that the documentation stinks.
The Lat 38 correspondent found that using anything more than
its most basic functions defied him, and as he put it, "I
actually am, or used to be, a rocket scientist." The
electrical engineer from whom he borrowed the unit was also
at a loss.
Eventually he figured it out and drafted a user manual of his
own, which his EE friend reviewed and improved. Only now do
they know how to use any function of the unit that does not
appear more or less automatically when you start stabbing the
buttons, or how to explain this to others.
So there's your cost of bad documentation. I won't quite call
it a risk to the user -- yachtsmen have a peculiarly intimate
relationship with Darwin and few of them would depend on a
navigation device they didn't understand -- but the risk to
the company is grievously dissatisfied customers who don't
mind telling others what they think of you.