The cost of bad documentation

February 12, 2009

A couple of years back, fellow technical communicator Rahel Anne Bailie (over at Intentional Design Inc.) wrote an excellent piece about the real cost of poor documentation.

She had this to say:

… The cost of creating any documentation is often a prickly point with management. Outside of regulated industries, where a minimum standard for documentation quality is enforced, the quality of documentation ranges wildly from the abysmal to absurd to excellent.

Skimping on documentation quality is often rationalized away by claiming that users don’t read it. The reality is that while customers don’t read a document from front to back, they do refer to the document when they’re in trouble. And when they can’t find that single, critical piece of information, their perceptions and expectations change. They stop using the documentation and revert to calling the vendor’s support line – a far more costly alternative to looking up an answer – because they assume that none of the needed answers will be found in the documentation.

This also starts the viral communication chain – word-of-mouth, forums, listserv, and blog posts, entries on complaint sites – criticizing the product. While more tech-savvy readers may identify the source of the problem as the documentation, consumers are more likely to think that the problem lies with the product itself, or see shoddy documentation as an extension of a shoddy product. The Consumer Electronics Association recognizes that the disconnect between product function and documented procedures is a significant contributor to their $10 billion-a-year product return problem.

Has much changed such Rahel wrote this?

An earlier (2002) piece by Dave Barry (Do not read while sleeping, reproduced in various US newspapers in 2008) suggested that:

One big reason that consumers don’t read manuals is that the typical manual starts out with 15 to 25 pages of warnings, informing you of numerous highly unlikely ways in which you could use the product to injure or kill yourself. …

… So every year there are more huge product-liability awards, and every year manufacturers have to put more warnings in the owners’ manuals, and every year the radish-brains come up with newer, more-innovative ways to injure themselves.

He has a point…

Another STC colleague of mine, Rich Maggiani, has written a one-page position paper on the Costs of Poor Communication. He states:

Financial statements do not carry a line item for these opportunity costs, which are relentless drains on your cash flow. The paper enumerates both common and specific examples, and identifies key consequences of poor communication: squandered time, wasted efforts, eroded loyalty, lost business, and–of course–lost revenue.

Most executives and managers understand how poor communication costs; what they do not realize is how big a role they play in this miscommunication.

His position paper on the Costs of Poor Communication is available from his website: http://www.solari.net/position-papers.php.

Update October 2012: Joseph Devney did a presentation on the ‘Potential costs of poor or missing documentation’ to the Berkeley Chapter of STC this month; his handout/summary is here: http://www.stc-berkeley.org/MonthlyMeeting/october2012_meeting/Devney_Handout_2.pdf

[Links last checked November 2012]


  1. This is great information – thanks for the informative blog and related references.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I think you are dead on about customer perception. There are several broken links though.

    Intentional Design Inc.
    real cost of poor documentation.
    Miami Herald

  3. I’ve fixed the links, Ryan — thanks for letting me know!

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