The FLUID model for documentation

The FLUID model helps you create user centered documentation. It describes the five steps users go through when they use documentation. The model provides practical tips for supporting users in each step.

The FLUID model can be adapted to search and help.

The FLUID model has five steps:

Formulate the problem

Users realize that there is a problem. They formulate the problem in words they can look for.

To facilitate this, you should:

  • Provide a table of contents, which users can skim when they look for ways of expressing their problem.
  • Write chapter and section headings that are comprehensible for users.
  • Offer a troubleshooting-section that deals with problems that users typically encounter. You can get inspiration for this section from usability testing and by talking to people in user support.

Locate an answer

Users then look for the relevant section in the documentation, often by flipping through the documentation.

To facilitate this, you should:

  • Show the name of the current chapter and section in the header of each page.
  • Offer an overview of user tasks, with links to step-by-step instructions for how to carry out the tasks.
  • Place the most important information at the start of each section.
  • Offer an overview of typical problems, with links to step-by-step instructions for how to solve the problems.
  • Make sure the overview describes functions that users might expect, but that the site cannot live up to. This prevents users from wasting their time looking for information that does not exist.
  • Include an extensive subject index.
  • Make the subject index easy to find, for example by placing it at the end of the document.
  • Include important synonyms and permutations in the subject index. You can find the synonyms through usability testing or by talking to users.

Understand the information found

Next, users try to understand what the author is saying.

To facilitate this, you should:

  • Write explanations in the users’ language.
  • Use examples to explain concepts.
  • Provide links that explain technical terms.
  • Use words consistently.
  • Use consistent (stereotypical) terminology. Create a vocabulary for your system; include synonyms that should not be used.
  • Provide clear explanations. Divide the text into short chunks. Present options as headings so the user can click them for information that is more detailed.

Implement the understanding

Once users have understood the author’s message, they convert the information into action.

To facilitate this, you should:

  • Ensure that the information in the documentation is updated and complete.
  • Provide actionable information.
  • Provide relevant examples that show precisely what users should do.
  • Explain the action’s consequences, that is, what will the system do in response to the user’s actions? What (invisible) data will be changed?

Determine if the problem has been solved

Finally, the user checks whether the website reacts as expected.

To facilitate this, you should:

  • Explain how the system should react.
  • Provide descriptions of possible errors and instructions for troubleshooting.

Credit for the FLUID model

I first wrote about the FLUID model in my book Brugervenlige edb-systemer (in Danish) in 1994. The FLUID model is strongly inspired by the works of Patricia Wright about usable computer documentation, in particular the paper Manual Dexterity – A User-Oriented Approach to Creating Computer Documentation from the CHI Conference in 1983. Patricia says that she did not invent the acronym “FLUID”; the origin of the acronym is unclear.