The RTFM Test

As your team improves its UX maturity, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by all of the possible ways that you can improve your product.

One good place to start is the RTFM test.

How to do the RTFM test

It’s simple. Ask your support team:

What area of the product gets the most support requests that don’t end up in bugs being logged?

In other words: Which areas does the support team most often find themselves telling the customers to RTFM (Read The Freakin’ Manual)?

Or worse: Are there any areas that the support team has to keep repeating itself because they’re not even covered by the manual?

That is where you start. That’s the lowest hanging fruit. Those are the usabugs. Fix those and you’ll free up your support team to deal with real bugs.

But how?

Now that you know which area of your product is the biggest RTFM offender, there are many ways you can improve it. Let’s turn to Jakob Nielsen’s classic Ten Usability Heuristics for inspiration. Specifically, number ten:

Help and documentation

Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

There’s a lot in there, so let’s break it down:


If at all possible, get rid of the freakin’ manual. “It is better if the system can be used without documentation.” This should be paired with user research such as usability tests to make sure you’re solving the real underlying issue.

For example, maybe the product uses a list of cryptic codes that the user must look up in the manual in order to understand what they mean. If so, provide that information on-screen instead.

Improve your documentation

If you can’t GROTFM, then follow Nielsen’s hints on how to improve your manual.

  • Provide easy-to-use search functionality
  • Center the documentation around user tasks, not system areas
  • Provide step-by-step instructions for accomplishing those tasks
  • Keep it short

As above, use user research to guide and validate your work on the documentation of your system.

Try it out!

It seems obvious in hindsight but before I redesigned the user access system at my previous company, I had dabbled with dozens of other ideas for improving the product. Sure, I was able to find lots of areas of the system that violated usability heuristics or clearly didn’t work as expected, but only when I discovered the RTFM test was I able to find something that was actually valuable to the business and to our users. The RTFM test allowed me to easily prioritize all those opportunities for improvement.

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