Friday, September 08, 2006

Who Writes the Manuals?

Seth Godin recently linked to a post on Kathy Sierra's blog about user manuals, and why marketing should be responsible for them. That led to an immediate response from Darren Barefoot disagreeing.

They're both right. Sort of.

From Kathy:

Why do so many companies treat potential users so much better than existing users? Think about it. The brochure is a thing of beauty, while the user manual is a thing of boredom. The brochure gets the big budget while the manual gets the big index. What if we stopped making the docs we give away for free SO much nicer than the ones the user paid for? What if instead of seducing potential users to buy, we seduced existing users to learn?

Let's take the whole damn ad/marketing budget and move it over to product manuals and support. Let's put our money where our users are. If we're in it for the short term, then sure--it makes sense to do everything to get a new user, while doing as little as possible once we've got them. But if we're really in it for the long haul--for customer retention and loyal users--then shouldn't we be using all that graphic design and pro writing talent for the people we care about the most? Our users?

From Darren:

There’s a reason why words like ‘glossy’ and ’slick’ have negative connotations. Because they imply shallowness, which isn’t something you should aspire to in a user manual.

It’s hubris to say, as Kathy does, that “shouldn’t we be using all that graphic design and pro writing talent for the people we care about the most?” Ah right, so there hasn’t been any design or ‘pro writing talent’ applied to that area yet? And marketers are the saviours? Right.

User manuals get a bad wrap because companies don’t devote enough resources to them. That money should be spent on thoughtful tech writers, trainers and support personnel who can make compelling training and support material. It shouldn’t be spent on applying lipstick.

Kathy's central point - that user manuals should be part of the experience of making customers passionate about, and committed to, our products - is absolutely right. But, as Darren points out, the way to do that isn't prettier manuals (and that's how I read Kathy's suggestion that we spend more on designing and printing manuals, especially given her "brochures - slick and cool vs manuals - black and white and boring" comparison graphic).

All successful communications should be designed with the user's needs in mind. The user of marketing materials is trying to make a purchasing decisions. The user of the manual is trying to accomplish her business tasks with the product. These are different things. Accomplishing them requires different skill sets.

Seth says, "can I propose a team effort?" That's the right approach.

As I read all of this I though back to my days at a company that made analytical lab equipment. We redesigned all of the marketing materials (they needed it badly). We made them more customer focused; we made the terminology used in them more consistent and clear; we did a really good job at it.

Then we looked at the manuals - which were boring and not that pretty - and my reaction was just like Kathy's.

After some, er, heated discussions with the tech writer who was responsible for them, s0mething became clear: our users didn't want pretty manuals. Our manuals sat in binders in laboratories and were consulted when someone needed details on exactly how we were determining results for tests, or when they needed to know maintenance procedures for the equipment.

They needed simple line diagrams, not sexy photos. They needed clear instructions on how to make the damn thing work so they could get through all the samples that needed to be tested, not information about why our techniques were the best around. They already knew that; that's why they bought our stuff.

Here's what we did do: the tech writer started reviewing the marketing materials to make sure that we weren't saying things that would make a lab tech on a purchasing committee snort in derision. And I started reviewing the manuals, so that I could make sure we weren't changing terminology after they bought the equipment, or undercutting our marketing messages.

The result, I think, was better manuals and better brochures. (This was pre-web - boy, I feel old suddenly!)

There's an element of marketing to all communications with your customers, including documentation, but not everything is primarily a marketing task. Have some respect for what the documentation folks do, because it's a specialized and important skill that you probably don't have. But don't ignore what they are doing, either.

Team effort - it can be a beautiful thing.

No comments: