But what if no one READS the manual?

As a lone writer in a start-up in 2001, there were times I wondered if anyone would ever read the manuals I was making. In fact, as long as I can remember, few of us in pubs have really known much about who is reading what we’ve written. Maybe we do a survey now and then. But that’s it. We have had precious little insight into how our work is perceived. As a result, we’ve enjoyed very low external accountability.

With the rise of social media listening tools, it is suddenly both possible and essential to know exactly how your customer feels about you. Before I say anything else, I encourage you to spend a minute (and 17 seconds) in the Gatorade social media Mission Control room. Go ahead, I’ll wait …

OK, that says it better than I ever could. Our role as communicators will never be the same.

  • The anonymity of our job? Gone.
  • Lack of external accountability? Gone.
  • Quiet days building intricate books alone in a room? Gone.

If we want to keep writing for a living, we’re going to have to listen to exactly what customers want to read, and then create exactly that. In addition, we’re going to have to check how they feel about what we write and make adjustments as we go.

This whole “keeping the customer happy” thing isn’t new for most professions, but it is a bit new for some of us, me included. Until now, our job has usually been to make the Subject Matter Expert (SME) happy. At least now we’ll be able to tell the SME that their opinion comes second to the customer’s.

It won’t be comfortable at first, but it can’t really be avoided for much longer. If nobody reads what we write, web analytics will soon make that painfully obvious. All our stuff is moving to the web, and effective companies are tracking who reads what, and when, and how often. And, in an age of continual staff-level adjustments, companies aren’t likely to perpetually employ anyone who can’t demonstrate a measurable business impact.

So let’s do this thing: Let’s listen, adapt, respond and win. We have a role in shaping knowledge in a time of profound innovation. We just have to step into the stream and start listening to our users in real-time.

We are some of the very best writers in the world. Let’s use our powers for good.

15 Responses to “But what if no one READS the manual?”

  1. Tristan,

    Our research has revealed the same issues. Most people EXPECT the documentation to be bad so they call customer service. I hope and expect that Technical Communication 2.0 includes some of the things you outline above. If adopted, TC’s will become incredibly strategic to the organization.

    • I totally agree, Mark. My vision is that TC 2.0 will facilitate self-service support, driving down incoming call volumes and improving Net Promoter Scores. As customer care moves from verbal to written, who better to make an impact than the organization’s sharpest writers?

  2. Great post. Technical writers are going to face two challenges as I see it.

    1. They need to make content that is more useful to the end user.
    2. They need to find ways to push that content into the areas where the user wants and needs that information.

    We have really focused on structuring and delivering our content so that it can be easily utilized in a support situation (email, twitter, online chat, etc.). That small change has made sure that our documentation gets much more use by our customers and therefore much more attention from us.

    BTW – I posted a link to this article on our own blog with some additional comments.

    • Greg, I appreciate your insight here and see things in much the same way. In fact, one of my upcoming posts is about how structured #techcomm topics facilitating self-service support. I’ve been working on alignment of this nature for the past two years and seeing exciting things happen. I loved reading through your blog, btw.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. The question isn’t whether we let our customers speak about us (and occasionally speak for us). They already do. The question is what will we do about it.

    We can’t afford to be late to the party!

    • You’re right, Larry. I think we still have a chance to get our invitation to this gala. I’m hopeful enough of us in the #techcomm space are making the required adjustments and getting dressed for the ball. As for me, I’m watching the SCRM space and how they are engaging the user. There is a wealth of development underway in the area of proactively listening to customers. I’m excited about the role our profession can play.

  4. I love the “active” approach that Gatorade has taken. I agree that as TCs we do something similar (though it will be different for all of us).

    I write the manual because it’s legally required, though the customer reps continually get annoyed because everyone calls with simple questions that are in the manual. They say, with a sigh, “They don’t read the manual.” But that’s not good enough for me. Why don’t my customers read the manual?

    My company’s in the construction industry and 9 times out of 10 we are dealing with men as our end-users. Most men like to tinker and figure things out on their own and maybe consult the manual as a last resort.

    I think they’d rather call someone because…well, I don’t know why. It’s easier, maybe? In my mind, I’d rather consult the manual than call someone because I’m not admitting to a live person that I have no idea what I’m doing.

    I need to figure out a way to make the manuals not only more engaging, but also their first source of reference and subsequently very easy to use. Our customers tell us that they don’t know we have manuals and other documentation on our website, and I think making these more accessible and advertising them will become my job.

    How do you influence a culture with social media and new technology when you have customers in the field, getting their hands dirty, and their computers are only used for email and basic tasks? (Some customers don’t have an Internet connection, either.)

    Thanks for listening! 🙂

    • @ceftekhar – We have found that two approaches work.

      1. Don’t wait for the customer to read the manual. Move the manual into the customer support process. Make it the most efficient way to answer their question. So, if they email, or call support, email them a link to the specific part of the manual that answers their question.

      2. Structure your manual in the way that your end users will use it. They aren’t going to read it. They are going to reference it. And will probably only reference it when they have a question. Structure your manual so that it answers questions.

      For this to work your manual truly has to be the most efficient way of answering their question. It has to be more efficient than talking to a customer service rep. That means your manual has to be super clear and very succinct. We find that the key to this is a lot of pictures and a very granular/modular approach to content authoring.

      We actually did a full webinar on this that has been very popular with our customers, “Why Your Documentation is Useless and How to Fix It”.

      Really, you can’t force users to change their behavior. But if you can insert your documentation into the areas where your customer is already interacting with you, your documentation will get more use. You will also find that your customers will start going to the manual first before contacting you because they have had success in the past. The key is great content optimized for what the customer needs/wants to know.

      • Fantastic feedback Greg. Great to hear from you. I totally agree that the customer wants an answer as fast as they can get it. And that often, that means that providing a URL to a complete, clear procedure is a welcome gift.

    • Great questions! I wonder if your end users have smart phones, yet? Maybe not. But if trends hold up, it’s only a matter of time until they do. Since there is a growing preference for self-help, perhaps the solution is concise topics, optimized for mobile access that can be easily found on a phone, from the field? That’s my prediction for how support will increasingly be delivered. What do you think?

      • Christina Eftekhar September 17, 2010 at 8:18 AM

        I definitely see the use for smart phones being used to look up documentation or search for help about a product. But in the construction industry, it’s the managers who have smart phones if anyone has them. The people actually rolling the asphalt may not be able to justify the need for a company-paid smart phone. Many tried the PDAs but they didn’t have all the productivity apps we have on the iPhone and Android (and Blackberry sometimes). Maybe some of the bigger companies are different when it comes to smart phones, but we all know how it is — the more physical labor you do the less perks you get.

        When I go out into the field I’ll be sure to ask about mobile access to our website etc. If I were signing the checks, though, I’d spend the money on a system like Author-It, RoboHelp, or FrameMaker than a specific technology for mobile viewing. My $.02.

    • Regarding Christina’s comment – “I need to figure out a way to make the manuals not only more engaging”…
      Marketing using game design is definitely an increasing technical documentation interface. It would be a natural progression, especially considering increasing capabilities of “smartphones”, iPads, and other “tablet computers”, but could also address non-technology media using traditional media.

  5. Michael –

    re: gamification of documentation – you might find this interesting. I tried it out as a customer of a service I use. It basically quizzes you on how well you know the product you are using and then gives you a score. The quiz was engaging and it did actually help me learn more about the product.



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