Saturday, July 4, 2009

Bad docs rarely mean bad sales

My father is more than 65 years old - which means he is officially a "senior citizen" entitled to tax breaks, travel concessions, blah blah. It does not, however, mean he is entitled to special consideration from his children (who continue to treat him like he's the dad that dropped them off to school but often mixed up the timings of the son's school with the daughter's).

So, when I got a blank SMS from my father (a few days ago, he'd been given a cell phone by my mother), I did not panic. I calmly rang him up (from 1500 kilimetres away) and asked, "Why on earth did you send me a blank SMS?"
"Did I? But I am still trying to write the message; how did it reach you already?"
"Oh? Did you ask Mom to show you how to write messages?"
"No, she's in the shower. I thought I'll look at this tiny booklet that came with the phone."
"This is what it says under 'Message'."

"Hmm, did you press 'Send' after you wrote the message or before?"
"I could not figure out Step 2. It says 'write'. How do I write? I want to type H, then O..."
Problem 1: Step 2 does not say how to write a message, neither does it link you to another place in the doc that might have instructions on how to write the message.
"Then you must have pressed 'Send' before you typed anything. Now, look carefully in the manual and see if there's a topic called 'Writing a message' or similar."
After 2 minutes of silence,
"Yes, there is something called 'Write text'."

"Okay, so now you write the text and send it to me."
"No, wait, it says 'press the key repeatedly'. Which key?"
Problem 2: Which key does "the" refer to?

By this time, I had lost patience and mom had finished her shower, so, within 5 minutes I got an SMS from dad. It read "How were the mangoes we sent across last week?"

How was this episode relevant to me as a technical writer? Let me count the ways:
  1. It reinforced two of my firmly held beliefs:
    1. Do not assume your reader to be as tech-savvy as you might be. Do an audience analysis and write for the lowest common denominator (remember Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra?)
    2. Do not make the reader go hunting for bits and pieces of info. Give complete instructions in one topic. It's okay to be verbose if that's what it takes to completely describe an action.
  2. It added one more incident to my observation that badly produced "help" rarely effects buying decisions. Not at the retail level, anyway. I'll still go buy a handset from this equipment manufacturer because their handsets are good.

    Which might mean - technical writing is a cost activity, not a revenue or a profit activity.



Kumar Narasimha said...

Lovely post.

The problem, IMO, with cell phone Help files is that they are 'written' and the avaialble space is limited.Instead, cellphone vendors should simply create animated Help that will show how to create a message, search for a contact etc etc.

But writing is a cost centre, but Ux is not, I think.

Anindita said...

Kumar, I agree with you on Ux. Besides the animated help, if equipment manufacturers could also spend some thought on the design...statistically, half of India's population is under 25 years. I am assuming that a LARGE portion of the other, non-25 half, comprises parents, grandparents, granduncles, grandaunts etc who'd like to keep in touch with their kiddos who're probably studying and working away from home. And yet, look at a handset today - the screen display is tiny (I've seen elders squinting at the phone trying to make out who's calling), and keys are small and placed very close together (as you age, your motor responses slow down). Can we not have phone handsets designed for a 40-plus user base? The equipment manufacturer that does that (or "appear" to do so, through clever advertising) will sell more handsets than its rivals. I am sure.

Mantra35 said...

It is the 'technology block' of the 'grand' generation that causes these issues and not the Help files. There is a huge difference between a college student reading a novel by Umberto Eco and a literary critic reading the 'text'. Similarly, the 60-plus has an issue even with TV remote controls, DVD players, internet surfing, and not just mobile phones. I feel, the UI of mobile phones are more intuitive than remote controls. The 40-plus or 60-lus need a bit of extra time to familiarise with the mobile phones and 'texting'. Do not blame human deficiencies on the poor old Help files. There will never be a 'perfect Help file' or user manual.

Bhumika said...

I enjoyed reading this post.

Its eye for detail which will bridge the gaps in communication, especially technical!

Nice work and thanks for sharing it.

cyberscribe said...

As a user champion, I must disagree (in principle, at least) with the idea of *helpful* documentation being a cost centre.

Yes, innate usability in products should always pre-empt the need for documentation but then not everyone has the same level of intuition, experience of use (with similar devices), or sufficient drive/patience to master new gadgetry.

Do product pushers really *want* to make their wares inaccessible to anyone who doesn't meet their intelligence quotient? I doubt it. That's where user support material becomes a tool for generating profit: Good documentation makes it easy to use a well-made product. Fantastic documentation makes it easy to use any product.

The faster a consumer reaches the profound pleasure of accomplishment that comes with getting the most out of a product (recalling the entire loaf of bread voraciously consumed the day our family bought its first electric toaster, or discovering that DVDs let you flip from scene to scene with a couple of clicks), the sooner they forget what life was like without your product and begin to publicly extoll its virtues.


Mantra35 said...

This link makes my point more clear.

Anindita said...

Cyberscribe, I generally agree with your views. However, for documentation to be seen as a revenue centre or a profit centre, it would have to show (as a revenue centre) sales that are directly linked to documentation or (as a prodit centre) profits (either as decreased costs or as increased sales) that can be attributed to documentation. The only problem there is - how to? Everyone (including the buyer) will agree that good documentation makes a difference (your example of the newly-bought oven comes to mind - together with the aroma of freshly-baked loaves) but no one reads a help doc before buying a product - only after - so, it'd be difficult to link docs with increased sales. We could link our docs to decreased costs - by contending that decreased calls to support centres are a result of our excellent doc - but again, how do we establish that the drop in support calls is directly attributable to good documentation?


Anonymous said...

Documentation probably doesn't improve immediate profits, but improves long term profits because it increases the chances a customer will come back for more.

Marc Achtelig said...

I strongly agree with the previous comment. It is a long-term investment, not a short-term one. So good documentation is an excellent investment for a company that plans to sell its products under the same brand for a long time. It might be a poorer investment for a company that plans to drop a brand after a short time and is looking for optimizing short-term profit.