On writing manuals for WordPress websites

I always dislike starting a manual. The work seems so endless and boring. You have to write everything down, step by step, you have to make relevant screen shots, sort everything, and then create an index for easy reference. Whenever I’m about to start, I always wish I didn’t have to.

I do it anyway because I make web sites for people. In the last few years everyone seems to want a WordPress web site, and that’s fine. WordPress can have some real advantages. However, I always check with a client to make sure that they really need it, and that they know what using it actually entails. Sometimes other options are better suited to certain needs.

I do end up making a lot of WordPress web sites, and clients usually want to update their sites themselves. Some people pick that up (relatively) quickly and do not need any help from me, while some people can’t even manage to log in.

The difference between these two groups is not intelligence, nor is it prior exposure to blogging and/or social media. Those things might increase the speed with which someone picks things up, but it doesn’t determine whether someone picks it up or not. I’ve found that that is by and large determined by whether someone has an internal motivation to learn this or not.

Most people are not motivated to learn WordPress. They care about having a web site, but they don’t care about WordPress, much like caring about having a car but not really caring about how it works. They just want it to work. Most people are motivated to learn how to drive because otherwise they can’t use the car.

Updating a WordPress site is much easier than learning to drive. Some people don’t need any help and like clicking on things to find out how they work. The awareness that if they do get it wrong no one will end up in the hospital—or worse, dead—is probably helpful. The worst that can happen is that your web site goes down. (And yes, this happens. Setting up automatic backups is something I always do. It can be a site saver.)

But even if you don’t learn how to update your web site you can still use it. It’s still up and running, aiding in your acquisition, even if it’s doing so rather passively. Thus motivation to learn WordPress is not always very high.

I used to go and sit next to a client and show them how to update their site while they would take notes. It would all seem so simple that neither of us would have any doubt that they’d be able to do it for themselves when the time came. Usually that time comes six months later, and they find that their notes don’t make sense anymore, and by then they no longer remember how to log in either.

Some people are too embarrassed to contact me when that happens. And that makes me sad. It’s their web site and I want them to be able to use it. Many people do contact me when that happens, which is good, but it does get to be quite time consuming because it is not just once six months later, it is usually every four to eight months. And that happens for almost all the web sites I make.

So, as I said at the beginning of this writing, I make manuals. And I always dread starting a new one. I copy from old ones as much as I can, which by now is quite a lot, thankfully. But I usually have to make changes simply because with every new version of WordPress something changes. I also like to use screen shots from a client’s own site so that everything looks familiar to them. Finally, almost every site has a slightly different back end, and all sites need to do slightly different things, so I’m always adding new sections.

Once I start and get into the rhythm of it, I actually enjoy writing the manuals. There is a real rhythm to the work of walking through each step myself and then breaking it up into smaller steps, and even smaller steps, and trying to get it small enough that it can be written down in a single line of text. There is a satisfaction in seeing how simple something really is when writing it down like that; in knowing that the person you are making it for will be able to really do what they want to do, as long as they actually look at the manual. And there is fun in making the screen shots. Depending on who I’m making it for, I might use purple arrows or turquoise numbers to indicate what I want someone to look for on their screen, or I might use the more standard red and green. I like playing with these things.

Writing the manual is the least technical part of my job, and I will probably always enjoy writing the code most. But once I’ve finished a manual I always feel very good about it. Suddenly it is their web site. I made someone a web site that represents something important to them, and now it’s theirs to use. A manual is what makes the site truly theirs, rather than something that is mine that they just get to show off. And this is something I really believe matters. I think it is important that they have full control over their own sites, and giving them a way to have that control makes me happy. And it usually makes them happy too.