Desert Island Docs

By | 2012/12/17

There is a long-running radio program on the BBC called Desert Island Discs that asks celebrities what recordings they would take with them if they were going to be stranded on a desert island. Today, the question does not make as much practical sense as when it was first broadcast in 1942. As long as the desert island had Wi-Fi, modern castaways would not have to make their choices before they leave, they could just listen to Pandora. (If the island has power for a record player, we can presume it also has Wi-Fi.)

You shop very differently if you are going to a desert island than if, say, you live across the street from the mall and are just picking up some groceries for tonight’s dinner. If you are going to a desert island, you pack extremely carefully. You make lists, you check them twice. You study accounts of other expeditions to desert islands to figure out what you might need.

Desert Island

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You have to get this right before you leave on your trip, because you will have no opportunity to go back for more supplies once you are on the island. Anything you did not bring, you will have to manage without. And if your experience on the island teaches you that half the stuff you packed is actually useless, but that you are missing some things that would have been really useful, you are stuck. It is too late to do anything about it, and you will just have to wait until the supply ship comes by in six months.

By contrast, if you live across from the mall, you probably don’t do much planning at all. You drop into the grocery store, pick something up for dinner, and if you find you are missing something, you pop back across the street and get it.

Before the Web, writing a user manual was like packing to send the user to a desert island. Once they opened the box with your product inside, they were alone with it, and the only help you could offer them was whatever documentation was in the box.

You knew little about what island the user would find themselves on, so the best you could do was to study previous expeditions to figure out what they might need (user needs analysis) and hope you remembered to include everything. No matter how thoroughly you prepared, though, you were bound to include all sorts of things that the user will never need, and omit some things that they will turn out to need desperately.

Because you had to finish packing for them before they ever set foot on the island, and because they had few means of communicating with you once they were on the island, and because you had no effective means of sending more supplies even if they did communicate, if you made any errors in the packing, the user was simply going to have to try to survive until the supply ship (release 2.0) arrives.

And even then, because you had so little communication with the user on their island, there would be no guarantee that you would have included what they were missing when you packed the supply ship.

The Mall

Image courtesy of Matt Banks /

In the age of the Web, however, the user is not on a desert island. The user is across the street from the mall, and yours is not the only shop in the mall. They can drop into the mall any time they need something, they can buy it from any of the stores in the mall, and if they want to hang out in the food court and talk about their work with the other users, they can.

The one place in the mall they are least likely to visit, however is a shop that only sells complete packed trunks of desert island supplies, especially if it only updates its stock every six to twelve months. Everything else in the mall is a better deal than that. What they want are individual items that meet their current needs, and they want the most up-to-date versions of those items, ideally the ones that have been constructed specifically to meet their needs as they emerge.

In writing technical documentation as books that ship with the product, we are selling pre-packed desert island trunks to an audience that lives across from the mall. What that audience needs is an eclectic stock of individual items that they can pick up when and where they need them, and that are regularly updated. They need Every Page is Page One topics, and they need them delivered on the Web along with all the other sources of content that they also use.

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