Daniel D. Beck

What do you say to “no one reads the docs”?

If you put significant time or effort into documentation, then eventually someone is going to say to you, “No one reads the docs.”

Regardless of intent, it lands like an insult. It’s said as if you weren’t in the room (virtually or otherwise), doing the work.

And it’s often said on the basis of zero evidence. At best, it’s like the repetition of a meme that nobody knows the origin of. Frequently, it reflects a misunderstanding about how documentation works and how it’s consumed. Most aggressively, it’s a statement of values disguised as fact.

The allegation that no one reads the documentation is hard to respond to in the moment (and it aches when you think of a clever response later). You need a way to respond with confidence that creates an opening for real understanding.

Don’t call it a comeback

There are lots of ways to respond to “no one reads the docs”. You can memorize page view numbers, make an impassioned speech about the practice of documenting things, or threaten to delete everything. But they’re all fundamentally defensive and meek. They’re as much a move to shut someone down as saying “no one reads the docs.”

Instead of trying to fight “no one read the docs”, open an inquiry. Here’s what it might look like:

Them: No one reads the docs.

You: Have you been interviewing users? What else have they been telling you?

The trick here is to inflect the question with as much genuine enthusiasm for this inquiry as you possibly can. Act as if the person saying that no one reads the docs has information that you want and need, because they do. Perhaps it’s information about their worldview and values, or perhaps they truly know about a barrier between your audience and your docs. You can’t know unless you ask.

And if they are truly making things up, it puts them on notice that you’re willing to engage with reality, not fabrications.