Documentation and Information - Lessons learned from consumer products
By dlindt on Oct 21, 2006
I bought a printer for a Mac with the intent to print panoramic pictures. Installing the drivers was more problematic than I anticipated, and I can't get the printer to print a panoramic picture from Photoshop CS2. I needed information, documentation, and support. What I've been reminded of over the last several days is the information and support provided to customers is key to building relationships with those customers.
Some of the points I've been reminded of over the last several days include:
Before I bought the printer, I checked an online version of the user guide. The procedure for printing seemed straightforward. However, once I started to work with the printer, I realized the user guide had gaps in topics that were important to me, and there were some subtle omissions in steps between the Windows and Mac versions. What we don't say in the documentation can be more critical to customer success than what we do say. Are there differences in features between platforms or differences in functionality? Do we need to be more explicit with limitations, rather than let our users find out the hard way that the product doesn't support a capability?
One of the biggest realizations I had was that troubleshooting information doesn't need to be listed in a troubleshooting section. A clearly written, complete, and accurate procedure can be the best troubleshooting information we can provide. I had to go searching for instructions on how to print a panoramic picture with the printer and Mac OS X, and I found some ideas for workarounds on forums that were more complete than anything in the user guide. I found the procedure because I was trying to solve a problem, but where can we keep our users from getting into trouble in the first place?
User documentation is only a small part of the information that describes a product. In this case, the user guide was a starting point. I needed more information and turned to the company support site. I very quickly realized the support site for the printer was incomplete, repeated a small set of information, and was hard to navigate. Further searching took me to a number of forums. Some had good information, but a lot of the posts were several years old. How can we ensure we have the right content in locations that are easy to find? Having the correct content that you cannot find doesn't help. Having incomplete or outdated content that you can find doesn't help.
I used Google for searching for content, and the search results varied greatly by key words. It was hard to know which key words to use. Banner, panorama, OS X, troubleshooting, printing, every combination returned a lot of useless information. I found some real gems, as well, but it was hard to remember the correct combination of key words to find that information again. This is where a good web design for self discovery becomes so useful. I couldn't find what I needed from the vendor site, and Google, while useful, was a lot of trial and error to come up with the information I needed.
By the time you give up on trying to find the answers with the information resources, Support then becomes the next big representative for a company. Here I realized that my email questions on my issues with the printer were being returned with cut and paste entries, most of which were to call their toll number for support if I still had problems. By this time, the main problem I had was deciding if I wanted to switch vendors.
A printer is a continuous revenue generator for a company. Once you've sold the printer, you continue to make money on ink, toner, and paper. For that reason, you would like the initial customer experience to be positive. Right now, I don't care for that company, and that isn't how you build communities.
I could very easily summarize my thoughts with words that could generate a lot of discussion on what language is appropriate for a blog, but I won't do that. Instead, I will think about what we can learn from these experiences to help promote the success of Sun and improve the experience of our customers.
We provide documentation and information for a lot of complex products and technologies. This documentation and information is one part of a larger set of documentation and information that comes from many sources and is hosted on a number of different web sites. People use this information to determine if they want to download a product. People use this information after they download the product to become regular users of the product and to remain as regular users of the product. This documentation and information adds value that keeps you coming back to a web site, and it helps to build a community of people who use our products and technologies.
Information, how well it meets your user needs and how easy it is to find the right information, can make or break your perception of a product or company. It's good to be reminded of this point.