What happens when you skimp on documentation?

In the TC Dojo last week we found out: Your company is at risk of debilitating lawsuits that, in the worst case, can put you out of business. Joe Devney, forensic linguist, editor, non-fiction writer, and previous STC chapter chair shared stories of companies who delivered insufficient, poorly-written documentation or who failed to provide any documentation at all.

First, he shared the foundation and statistics for potential risks of businesses who skimp on documentation. Then he told real-life stories.

Now, I’ve seen Joe speak before at a local STC chapter meeting. I always learn something new about how to produce good technical documentation. Usually that moment of enlightenment comes out of the shock of something I’ve just heard him say with regard to someone else’s content. (Something that usually triggered a major catastrophe for the company in question.)

Today was no different.

For example, did you know that the Google Books project that started in 2002, went live in 2004, was halted by a lawsuit by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers in 2005 and that once had a tentative settlement set for $125M remains unsettled?  Think of the ongoing costs of legal services in a 10-year lawsuit alone… Heck, even if you win, you lose. Lawsuits aren’t cheap.

And,  just because you have a disclaimer in your documentation, do you think that makes your company immune from lawsuits? Don’t count on it if someone dies because your docs are bad.  That’s what happened to one RV company.

When a lawsuit is filed, it’s not only the engineers who look into product safety, construction, and usage. The forensic linguists get involved too: They look at user manuals. They compare your documentation against that of your competitors. Are you using the standards set for your industry and documentation in general? Are your docs as good as theirs?

Then he talked about the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 and showed some examples of their documentation, specifically those docs cited in the NTSB report. He talked about how the NTSB compared ValuJet’s docs to the docs from Alaska Airlines. And he spent a good amount of time showing examples from the ValuJet documentation and pointing out things that contributed to the airline accident.

It was a sobering presentation and an important topic for anyone who is writing product documentation.

So, what do you say to management when they push back about producing quality documentation? People Might Die. Or the company may be subject to a debilitating lawsuit.

If you want to read more about forensic documentation and linguistics, check out Robert Shuy’s “Fighting over Words”.

And, if you missed Joe’s sessions, I highly recommend watching the video recordings:

  1. Part 1: Potential Business Costs of Skimping on Documentation
  2. Part 2: Unhappy Customers are Just the Beginning

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Featured image from FAA.gov

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Author: Liz Fraley

Liz Fraley https://www.linkedin.com/in/elizabethfraley/

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