Improve the experience

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Recently, Tom suggested that:
if someone can figure out how to make help whallop the user with wonder and awe, it will be the creative innovation of the century. Once we begin to establish a standard and a precedence, people’s beliefs will change from feeling that “all help is useless and unimportant” to “the help at my company is exceptionally good and useful; I will explore it more often.”

And I completely agree.

But.

Whilst he goes on to list ways in which the future of online help may expand – personalized help, feedback options, audiovisual options and such like – I think that is only one side of the coin.

While, without a doubt I could work harder to improve the content offered as online help, I think technical communicators need to expand their view a little, step back and see a bigger picture. I’ve touched on this before, and it is by no means original, but ultimately we are at a point where it is beginning to be realised that the information provided with a product is a most valuable commodity. With that in mind, the time is ripe for what Tom suggests, a new way of presenting information is surely on the cards. However I think it’s wrong to limit it to online help or documentation alone.

I’m lucky that, presently, I’m part of a company that allows the Publications Team (MUST change that name!) to be part of the softare design process. As such I can see, from inception to release, the decisions and design thoughts that go into producing our software, and I influence them as much as I can. Making the on-screen text useful is one thing, the next step is to think “task task task” during any discussions on design. Developers, rightly, take a requirement and start thinking about how THEY can implement it, yet just by repeating the “task task task” mantra I was able to get them to start thinking about how it should end up, rather than the finite possibilities of how it could be implemented.

Just to clarify, I don’t sit at my desk and chant. Instead I tend to start discussions about our software with “OK, I’m [insert user type], what am I trying to do here?”.

I’m not ramming this down anyone’s throat, but my choice of language during discussions has started to rub off, resulting in some design decisions made because they were thinking about the task the user is trying to complete, not the fact that it would need to get info from database A and publish it to form B.

In response to Tom’s post, I said:

Perhaps the radical shift is helping to address issues without presuming that people will “end up in the help”. Instead of being the last resort we should be striving to stop people having to get to that point.

That said, if they do end up in the help then yes, it should have a sufficient “wow” factor without being useless. Ultimately, make sure the information they want is findable by whatever means they choose.

Being the customer respresentative, the interface to the interface, is part of that.

I once told a Technical Support Manager that, ultimately, the aim for my team was to put his out of a job. Obviously that will never happen as the myriad of platforms, hardware, and user issues that surround every software product couldn’t ever be documented (unless development of the software had ceased, in which case I wouldn’t be working for the company).

I guess the aim for a usability team, or anyone interested in improving the user experience, is to put the documentation team out of a job. If the interface is well enough designed that the user doesn’t get stuck, and if it includes enough information in the UI to help the user make decisions, then why would they ever need documentation? Of course, similarly to the Support team scenario, documentation will be required to support the less travelled paths through the UI, to help the user who wants to do things her own way.

And that is where Tom’s suggestions come in. If we can improve the information we provide, making sure the customer experience is maintained (bettered?), then they are more likely to come back.