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Great Technical Writing: The User-Product Life Cycle - A Documentation Tool

Nov 12, 2007
The User-Product Life Cycle (U-PLC) is a powerful tool for the User Document writer. Use the U-PLC to generate the high-level topics for your User Document.


Usually, when we think of a Product Life Cycle, we think in terms of the development and production of the Product itself. When writing User Documentation, consider the U-PLC to help you generate all the topics necessary for a complete document. User Documentation should support your Users in all of their interactions with the product.

The User-Product Life Cycle refers to the full range of interactions between the User and the Product itself. This is more than simply "how to use the product." As you will see below, "Use the Product" is only one stage in the U-PLC.


Here are the stages IN the U-PLC (assuming that the User as acquired the Product):

-- U-P LC Stage: Transport the Product to its working location

-- U-P LC Stage: Unpack the Product

Transport and Unpacking of the product are listed here just for completeness. These are currently displayed on the packaging itself, usually in pictorial form, and do a good job.

-- U-P LC Stage: Overall knowledge about the Product.

This is information that is presented to the User early in the User Documents.

Topics here include safety, legal, and disclaimers related to the product.

The description of the product should indicate how the product may change the way that the User currently does things. For example, an analog voice recorder will require the User to listen to all the stored items to find a particular one; a digital voice recorder will enable the User to quickly jump from one message to another.

-- U-P LC Stage: Set up or Install the Product

* Environments

It is important for the writer to think of the various environments where the product will exist. For example, how should a computer program be installed in a Windows, Mac, or Linux environment?

"Environments" includes other things that the product must work with. For example, how should a DVD player be installed in a system currently composed of a TV and a VCR? How about installation to a TV & VCR system where the TV has only one video input?

* User Capabilities.

The capabilities required for the User to set up the product are also important. Since the assumptions related to the User for set up may be different from the assumptions about the User in using the product, the wise writer will present the skills (and perhaps regulations) needed to set up the product. A section entitled "Can You Set Up This Product?" will enable the User to make the decision about whether to set the product up themselves, or find outside help.

For example, suppose the product is an electrical light dimmer that is intended to replace the light switch in the User's home. Using the product merely requires adjusting the dimmer's single control to set the desired light level. Installing the product requires experience with home electrical wiring--does the User have these capabilities?

Sometimes, the limitation may be legal. In some jurisdictions -- Quebec, Canada, for example -- only qualified electricians are permitted to install or modify electrical circuits in the home. Thus in Quebec, the general User of the dimmer will not be able to (legally) install the light dimmer.

-- U-P LC Stage: Use the Product

This component is the focus of most User Documentation. It should contain at least these three sub-topics:

- Starting the product

- Actual Use of the product

For most products "Actual Use" is the central focus of the User Document.

Ideally, this should be divided into basic or common product functions, and advanced functions. A good example is photo-editing software. Most Users want to crop, rotate, and adjust the brightness and contrast of the image. These are basic functions. More advanced functions might be combining the parts of one picture with another.

- Shutting down the product

Is there any maintenance to be done at shut down? List it here and in the "Maintain" section.

-- U-P LC Stage: Maintain the Product

Consider breaking this down into time periods, such as: after each use, weekly, monthly, yearly, as applicable.

-- U-P LC Stage: Move the Product

For a computer software program, how the User should move the program and its data to another computer; computer users often upgrade their computer hardware. While it is often assumed that the User should re-install the product on the new computer, there always is the question about moving the data related to the product: where is it located, and how should it be moved so the newly-installed program can recognize it on the new computer?

For a physical product, are there any special considerations in moving the Product to another location?

-- U-P LC Stage: Discard the Product or its By-Products

Here I would like to mention only selling the used product. It might be wise to mention that by keeping the User Manual, the seller may find it easier to sell, and possibly get a higher price, for the used product.


As you generate the topics for your User Document make sure that you keep the U-PLC in mind. Ensure that you include topics in your User Document Outline to assist your User in all phases of the U-PLC.

Great User Documents can assist in the UP-LC section that I did not present here: acquisition of the product. Your marketing department may be able to use your GREAT User Document as part of its marketing campaign.
About the Author
Barry Millman, Ph.D., has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Psychology (Human Information Processing). He is a consultant, course developer and award-winning speaker. Visit http://www.greatuserdocs.com/ReadingRoom.htm for more articles like this one.
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