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How to write user-friendly tech notes.

Typically, automated fax-back systems take over 7%-10% of a software company's total tech support call burden. At Software Publishing Corp., the two-year-old "Ready Reference" fax-back service has achieved dramatically better results: The system handles more than 15% of SPC's support calls, and reduces manpower costs by virtually the same percentage. One key reason for the system's success: Attractive, "magazine-style" editing and presentation of the tech notes that the system sends in response to questions from users.

SPC's tech notes go well beyond the bare text messages that most faxback systems provide: Pages are laid out with lots of graphics, headlines, callouts, and white space; the text is clear and polished. Technical editor Susan Wisseman, who creates much of SPC's fax-back documents, is convinced that readability and presentation are especially important for callers who are already confused by written documentation. "You only compound the problem when you give the customer a page thick with text and not much else."

We asked Wisseman for her advice on how to create user-friendly tech notes:

* Grab the reader's attention: "Think of your fax like an article in a magazine," says Wisseman. "Start with a headline at the top of the page that clearly states what the fax is about. Even though the customer wants the information that the fax has, it doesn't hurt to pull them in with a catchy lead." Then, include a subhead that spells out the problem the tech note is supposed to solve, "to assure the reader that they've really got the right information in their hands."

* Lay out everything simply and efficiently: "I'm a white space person," Wisseman says. "When the text is too dense, the information isn't user-friendly." Use numbered or bulleted text "as often as you can," and include plenty of subheads to show the logical progression of the information.

* Keep it short and sweet: Callers generally want immediate solutions to problems, says Wisseman, without "cross references, long-winded explanations or superfluous information." But don't skimp on essential information just for the sake of brevity. "When people ask for a faxed answer, they're usually willing to read as much as necessary to solve the problem at hand."

* Use visuals as often as possible: "If someone can see what the results should look like after following your directions, your job is half done," says Wisseman. Illustrations are particularly helpful for explaining formatting instructions and presentation concepts, she notes. "But don't overlook the fact that fax machines take a long time to print out complicated images and the quality can be unreliable."

* Listen to tech support calls: "It's important to target your audience accurately and make sure that you're really answering their questions effectively," says Wisseman. A good way to stay in touch with users is to listen to tech support calls. "Customers aren't consistent about the kinds of questions they ask," she points out. "You have to keep your finger constantly on the pulse of what they need."

Susan Wisseman, technical editor, Software Publishing Corporation, 3165 Kifer Rd., Santa Clara, Calif. 95056; 408/986-8000.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Software Publishing Corp.'s fax-back technical support service handles 15 percent of its service calls
Date:May 31, 1993
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