Monday Mar 07, 2011

Community Conversation

Applications User Experience members (Erika Webb, Laurie Pattison, and I) attended the User Assistance Europe Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. We were impressed with the thought leadership and practical application of ideas in Anne Gentle's keynote address "Social Web Strategies for Documentation". After the conference, we spoke with Anne to explore the ideas further.

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Applications User Experience Senior Director Laurie Pattison (left) with Anne Gentle at the User Assistance Europe Conference

In Anne's book called Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation, she explains how user assistance is undergoing a seismic shift. The direction is away from the old print manuals and online help concept towards a web-based, user community-driven solution using social media tools.

User experience professionals now have a vast range of such tools to start and nurture this "conversation": blogs, wikis, forums, social networking sites, microblogging systems, image and video sharing sites, virtual worlds, podcasts, instant messaging, mashups, and so on.

That user communities are a rich source of user assistance is not a surprise, but the extent of available assistance is. For example, we know from the Consortium for Service Innovation that there has been an 'explosion' of user-generated content on the web. User-initiated community conversations provide as much as 30 times the number of official help desk solutions for consortium members!

The growing reliance on user community solutions is clearly a user experience issue. Anne says that user assistance as conversation "means getting closer to users and helping them perform well. User-centered design has been touted as one of the most important ideas developed in the last 20 years of workplace writing. Now writers can take the idea of user-centered design a step further by starting conversations with users and enabling user assistance in interactions."

Some of Anne's favorite examples of this paradigm shift from the world of traditional documentation to community conversation include:

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Adobe Writer Bob Bringhurst's Blog

Oracle is not without a user community conversation too. Besides the "community discussions and blogs around documentation offerings, we have the My Oracle Support Community forums, Oracle Technology Network  (OTN) communities, wiki, blogs, and so on. We have the great work done by our user groups and customer councils. Employees like David Haimes are reaching out, and enthusiastic non-employee gurus like Chet Justice (OracleNerd), Floyd Teter and Eddie Awad provide great "how-to" information too.

But what does this paradigm shift mean for existing technical writers as users turn away from the traditional printable PDF manual deliverables? We asked Anne after the conference. The writer role becomes one of conversation initiator or enabler. The role evolves, along with the process, as the users define their concept of user assistance and terms of engagement with the product instead of having it pre-determined. It is largely a case now of "inventing the job while you're doing it, instead of being hired for it" Anne said. There is less emphasis on formal titles. Anne mentions that her own title "Content Stacker" at OpenStack; others use titles such as "Content Curator" or "Community Lead". However, the role remains one essentially about communications, "but of a new type--interacting with users, moderating, curating content, instead of sitting down to write a manual from start to finish."

Clearly then, this role is open to more than professional technical writers. Product managers who write blogs, developers who moderate forums, support professionals who update wikis, rock star programmers with a penchant for YouTube are ideal. Anyone with the product knowledge, empathy for the user, and flair for relationships on the social web can join in. Some even perform these roles already but do not realize it. Anne feels the technical communicator space will move from hiring new community conversation professionals (who are already active in the space through blogging, tweets, wikis, and so on) to retraining some existing writers over time. Our own research reveals that the established proponents of community user assistance even set employee performance objectives for internal content curators about the amount of community content delivered by people outside the organization!

To take advantage of the conversations on the web as user assistance, enterprises must first establish where on the spectrum their community lies. "What is the line between community willingness to contribute and the enterprise objectives?" Anne asked. "The relationship with users must be managed and also measured." Anne believes that the process can start with a "just do it" approach. Begin by reaching out to existing user groups, individual bloggers and tweeters, forum posters, early adopter program participants, conference attendees, customer advisory board members, and so on. Use analytical tools to measure the level of conversation about your products and services to show a return on investment (ROI), winning management support.

Anne emphasized that success with the community model is dependent on lowering the technical and motivational barriers so that users can readily contribute to the conversation. Simple tools must be provided, and guidelines, if any, must be straightforward but not mandatory. The conversational approach is one where traditional style and branding guides do not necessarily apply. Tools and infrastructure help users to create content easily, to search and find the information online, read it, rate it, translate it, and participate further in the content's evolution. Recognizing contributors by using ratings on forums, giving out Twitter kudos, conference invitations, visits to headquarters, free products, preview releases, and so on, also encourages the adoption of the conversation model.

The move to conversation as user assistance is not free, but there is a business ROI. The conversational model means that customer service is enhanced, as user experience moves from a functional to a valued, emotional level. Studies show a positive correlation between loyalty and financial performance (Consortium for Service Innovation, 2010), and as customer experience and loyalty become key differentiators, user experience professionals cannot explore the model's possibilities.

The digital universe (measured at 1.2 million petabytes in 2010) is doubling every 12 to 18 months, and 70 percent of that universe consists of user-generated content (IDC, 2010). Conversation as user assistance cannot be ignored but must be embraced. It is a time to manage for abundance, not scarcity. Besides, the conversation approach certainly sounds more interesting, rewarding, and fun than the traditional model!

I would like to thank Anne for her time and thoughts, and recommend that all user assistance professionals read her book. You can follow Anne on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/annegentle.

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Oracle applications user experience (UX) assistance. UX and development outreach of all sorts to the apps community, helping to design and deliver usable apps.

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Ultan Ó Broin. Director, Global Applications User Experience, Oracle Corporation. On Twitter: @ultan

See my other Oracle blog about product globalization too: Not Lost in Translation

Interests: User experience (UX), user centered design, design patterns, tailoring, BYOD, dev relations, language quality, mobile apps, Oracle FMW and ADF, and a lot more.

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