Bad documentation hurts your business

Picture of Michal Skowron
Michal Skowron

Michał is a Technical Writer with over five years of experience, a co-admin of the blog, and a trainer for ITCQF.

Care to share?

Let’s start with a positive – good documentation can help your business. It doesn’t only keep your customers happy by helping them to achieve their goals. In fact, it can be an important part of your pre-sales. For complex technical products, people read the documentation to see if the product meets their requirements before they decide to contact your sales.

But let’s not forget about the other side of the coin – bad documentation can hurt your business. As bold as this statement is, we are convinced that no documentation can sometimes be better than poorly-written documentation. Why?

Scaring away potential clients

Bad documentation can make for a not-so-good first impression on your potential clients. Take for example the story in this article. A couple was looking for a vacuum cleaner. They almost bought one that had all they needed, but then they read the information on the packaging. It was very poorly written and, most likely, untrue for the most part. The couple got discouraged and decided to buy a different vacuum cleaner. They thought that a company that didn’t care about its writing couldn’t be credible. Would you like your clients to think the same about your product?

But that’s not all. Bad first impressions tend to spread. When people see bad content, they tell others, and if it’s really bad content, they make fun of it on their social media. Word of mouth is still the most powerful form of advertising, especially in the era of tweets, forums, and opinion sites. And it doesn’t matter if you sell vacuum cleaners or highly advanced software – a bad opinion is always stronger than a good one.

A few years ago, SDL ran a survey to check the influence of product content on customer experience. 79% of respondents said that high-quality content improves their impression of a product or brand and 72% admitted that they are more inclined to recommend a product or brand if it comes with good content.
IBM also measured the importance of technical information. In their three-year survey, almost 90% of respondents agreed that high quality technical information is very important in the initial purchase decision.

Losing existing clients

Bad documentation doesn’t help your existing clients either. And what is worse, it annoys them because they know they are losing precious time reading it. Worst of all, they get annoyed WHILE they are experiencing problems with your product. If your approach is to “give them something that looks like documentation so we can close the project”, we suggest you don’t give your customers any documentation at all. They still won’t get any help, but at least they will be less annoyed (which surely helps to keep them healthier).

You’ve probably heard that good documentation reduces the number of support requests. The opposite is also true; bad documentation increases the number of support requests. It’s safe to assume that if you see option ‘X’ in the interface and then you see a screenshot of the same interface but the option is ‘Y’, you get confused. You think – is this the same screen? Or maybe I have a different version of the software? To paraphrase the theme song from Ghostbusters: “If there’s something strange in your manual, who ya gonna call? TECH SUPPORT!”.

…or give up on your product altogether.

If your documentation is delivered as a help portal, you can use web analytics tools to see how your content is doing in saving you money. Analysing searches that don’t produce any results or user clicks and watching the bounce rate for troubleshooting pages can help you calculate the return on investment (ROI) of your documentation. If you’re a novice to ROI, the calculator from Cherryleaf will get you started in no time.

Wasting internal resources

When we talk about documentation, we don’t only mean documentation created for end users. Same applies to your internal documentation, like documents created by system architects or developers, and documents describing internal policies and procedures. When these documents are bad, you also lose – by wasting time and making mistakes. Maybe you’re not discouraging prospective clients but you’re losing money anyway.

If an employee is looking for information and they cannot find it because the documentation is out-of-date or incomplete, they waste their time, which is pretty expensive these days. Of course, writing and maintaining good documentation also takes time. But if someone invests 3 hours into writing a procedure and then 3 people read and follow it instead of “making it up from scratch” that is sure to save a few bucks. Also, when the procedure is written down clearly, people following it are less prone to errors, which means that they don’t have to waste their time correcting mistakes which they could have avoided in the first place. And this translates into even more savings.

At 3di, one of four habits for continuous improvement is repeatability. We wouldn’t be able to do things again using the same proven method without documenting processes as we go. There is no room for guessing, and over time, this translates into higher quality.

Don’t worry, there’s hope


If you manged to get to this point, you probably don’t need more arguments that bad documentation equals lost business. Ok, so now let’s think what you can do to improve your situation.

To make your documentation (and business) better, you need to be on the lookout for the following issues.

Confusing navigation

Navigation should be intuitive and simple. Users must be able to quickly find what they’re looking for.

Content full of jargon and obscure terms

Your users don’t know what “GARPP” (or some other highly technical thing) is. And not because they lack intelligence, but because they aren’t developers who spend hours working on your product. Whatever seems obvious to you, may not be obvious to your users. But it is your responsibility to fill this gap.

Superfluous content

Get rid of distractions and cut to the chase. Users need your documentation to get their job done. Instead of writing about everything you know, write only about the things that matter. Not more, not less.


Documentation can be bad not only because of factual errors but also linguistic issues, like typos. You think it doesn’t matter – who cares about a missing letter or two? We’re not saying that it’s ALWAYS the end of the world, but it can sometimes cost a lot, and some people had to learn it the hard way.

Too much marketing

Technical documentation isn’t the best place for directly advertising your product. Saying that “Product A is a state-of-the-art network management software that offers best-in-class device configuration interface and robust reporting capabilities” is a no-no while writing technical documentation. Instead, you should just say that “Product A is a network management application that you can use to configure your devices and run reports”. The marketing aspect of the technical documentation should be an “implicit side effect”. When a prospective client reads your docs, they should be able to decide whether the described product meets their requirements. If it does, you don’t need any more marketing. If it doesn’t, marketing won’t help anyway.

Outdated content

Your users have better things to do than excavation, so make sure that your documentation doesn’t turn into a fossil. And remember – updating documentation means both adding new stuff and removing old stuff. Sometimes, you keep things just because MAYBE someone will need them. But that way, information about all the newest features is drowned in an endless sea of old stuff nobody cares about anymore. And that’s definitely not good.

Poor performance

Great content won’t get you far if it takes ages to open your help site, or download a PDF hosted on your server. We’re living in a fast-paced world, and people need their TV shows and their coffee now! Same applies to documentation. If it doesn’t happen, people get frustrated and frustrated users aren’t good advocates for your business.

Get to work


Now that you know what to do, the ball’s in your court. First, examine your documentation. Second, prepare a plan to fix it. Third, execute the plan and watch your business grow. Just three steps. Simple, isn’t it?

Good luck!

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Published May 31, 2017