Coffee stains or customers

It’s never failed to amaze me as I travel round meeting companies, how little time and effort is put into producing the documentation that goes out with early releases of a product. Assuming it’s something that someone remembers to add to the ‘to do’ list before the 11th hour of development, then the general technique for producing documentation is to load yet another task onto the already overworked engineer. Engineers are rarely motivated to do it – most of them hate writing – and often perceive it as the final straw – and in any case they would rather be engineering the product. Everyone gets grumpy. The net result is that the documentation which is shipped to the customer is something no one wanted to do, completed in a hurry and with plenty of bad feelings. And it shows.

On the receiving end, the customer looks at the documentation and sees it’s, well let’s be blunt, rubbish. It looks like the reality of how it was created; rushed, grudgingly constructed and half-baked. It doesn’t guide from opening the box to running the product, it’s badly laid out, often it’s only a reference manual and there’s no handholding tutorial to really get the end user up and running with the kit as quickly as possible. So the customer picks up the phone and expends hours of the already overworked engineer’s time in support questions. It takes very little time before everyone is grumpy! The manual was the complete waste of time that the engineer said it would be so he tells his manager “I told you so” and stomps back to his desk. At the customer site, the frustrated customer, chucks it to the back of the desk where it is used to put coffee cups on.

Yet this approach makes no sense. Sure, we technical types pride ourselves in trying to figure out our latest gizmo without reading the manual but we’re usually the first ones to label a support call ‘RTFM’ when our users are making a meal of running some of our software. And most companies spend a king’s ransom on corporate image, PR and marketing materials; the aim being to advertise our brand, our professional approach, our understanding of the customer needs, our intention to partner with them through their process. So why do we overlook the opportunity to use the manuals to advertise our brand, our professional approach, our clear understanding of the customers’ needs and our desire to partner with them through the process. Instead we deliver up the exact opposite.

Only once in all the 20+ years I have been involved in the hi-tech industry, have I ever had the pleasure of opening a set of manuals that really served up their full potential. The manuals were not expensive productions – but they were clear, well laid out and to the point. They started by telling me how to install the product, then how to start it, then how to run a basic tutorial. Next came a selection of gotchas of where I was likely to make a mistake that would make my life harder, and finally details of how to get help if my problem did not fall into one of those categories. I never did call that number – I never needed to. What I did do was evangelise for that company. I told other people about how I had found working with that company easy and pleasant and, yes, I recommended their product. It was not a kick-ass product either – but from day 1 it was a pleasant experience to use it and engineers, like elephants, never forget.

When I met the CEO of that company at a conference later that year, I commented about the manuals. He told me that the company had a clear policy of making the manuals the best they could; the company’s attitude, he said, was that you could have the best product in the world but unless you made it so that people found their first experiences with it straightforward, you were shooting yourself in the foot. This company, uniquely in my experience, adopted the attitude that the manuals played an equal part with ease-of-use features in the development in making that first experience a pleasant one. First impressions count, said the CEO, and if your first impression of a product is that that is an uphill slog from the minute you open the box, that’s an impression that you can never remedy; it will taint your relationship with that customer for a long time into the future. It’s about delivering on a promise ... or not!

Documentation is something we specialise in here at Anchorage. We’ve written and edited everything from user manuals to training courses, from methodology papers to complex technical reports. Our consultants are technical specialists with years of experience in both hardware and software. So if you’d like to have your next set of documents make a first impression that you’re happy to be associated – so they collect new customers rather than coffee stains – then contact us at Anchorage Consulting.

Catherine Bethell

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