Users’ Advocate: New Feet for Some Big Shoes

big-feet-shoesI’m honored to be taking over as the new Users’ Advocate columnist. I’m also more than a little nervous about following two great writers. Especially because Mark and Geoff have written about so many great Users’ Advocate topics over the years.

I’ll start with a declaration of intent. I’m going to lay out my manifesto for my tenure as the Users’ Advocate columnist. It’s entirely likely that I’ll veer off course within a couple of columns, but it’s the thought that counts.

First, a little about me. I started out as a technical writer. Over the years, I’ve branched out and picked up some more skills, learning a bit about information architecture, content strategy, customer support, and training. In fact, I’m now managing a training team. I’ll not only be scheduling training sessions, I’m also responsible for updating and expand our training courses. I need to audit the existing training content, then come up with a plan to improve the content used in the courses as well as handouts and other reference material–and that means various forms of product documentation, videos, and probably some “cheat sheets,” as well.

All of this new effort involves not only the obvious elearning and techcomm, but also content auditing, content management, content storage, content reuse, publishing and delivery…and that’s just off the top of my head.

But first I need to determine what type of training and related content we need to create. Since we’ll be delivering training to customers, partners, and employees, we’ll need to do a lot of audience research. And that involves the type of skills that I want to focus on in this column.

Collaboration: it’s dangerous to go alone

As a new employee, I need to learn…just about everything. To start to audit what content we have, I have to learn where it is. I need to understand what our employees know, and what they need to know (happily, being a new employee helps with this).

I report to the VP of Operations, and my peers are the heads of professional services, customer support, and technical operations. We’re a small office, so I can talk to our marketing and sales departments in the next row. But I learned a long time ago that even if you need to walk a little farther, it’s always worthwhile to talk to people in other departments.

We often don’t think of our coworkers as our customers, but what better way is there to learn about your products? And if your coworkers aren’t making use of the user assistance content that you’re creating (whether that’s manuals, help, videos, training, or something else), then why do you expect your customers do use it? Because they have no choice? In fact they have lots of choices, and we ignore that at our peril.

But your coworkers aren’t just guinea pigs! We all know about the value of subject matter experts (usually engineers, or maybe product managers), but SMEs live in all the other departments of an organization. People in sales and marketing can tell you about how your products are positioned, how your company wants to be perceived and what tone and voice they use when talking to customers and prospects, and who your competitors are ( yes, you should look at your competitors’ user assistance). Customer support agents can tell you all about the issues that your customers are reporting. So pay attention to their stories about the questions that made them pound their heads against their desks as well as the question that resulted in a cross-departmental panel of experts working until the wee hours of the morning.

That’s just a few of the people that you’ll want to build relationships with.

Meet your users

Content isn’t king; customers are king. The content that you create exists to make sure that your customers can use your product successfully.

That’s it. No matter how incredible, revolutionary, and generally awesome that content is, it exists to educate, train, and help your customers so that they can get their tasks done as efficiently as possible.

To help them, you need to get to know them. Maybe you don’t need to know their hobbies and the names of their pets, but you do need to know how they use your product, how they want to learn how to use it, and how they want to get their questions answered when they’re forced to turn to the help.

What is their role? How much do they know? What’s their environment like?  For example, can they watch videos, or will that be too distracting? Will they have access to your online knowledge base, or do they need an offline option?

It’s more than what, it’s also how

Speaking of options…

In the past, we only had to figure out what information our users needed to read. Now we also need to think about how they want to access the content. Do they still want PDFs, or even manuals? Or do they want tooltips with links to more information, and maybe have that information is in the form of videos or infographics? Are they getting that content on a phone or a laptop, or by sitting in a classroom?

This doesn’t even touch on documentation for developers, which requires a high degree of accuracy and a large selection of examples. But even then, what examples should you focus on? Simple “Hello World” examples that help your users get started, or complex examples that demonstrate the features of your API?

How do we know what to do?

Here’s the thing: you don’t know. Your customers know, and you need to learn from them, whether they’re business customers for your software, or consumers buying your latest gadget. It’s time to get out from behind your desk and talk to your customers. And talk to the people in your company who talk to your customers, so everyone in your company can create content that follows a consistent style.

I want to focus on three directives:

  • Collaborate with your coworkers.
  • Communicate with your users.
  • Innovate with your content.

I’ll be addressing these issues, and looking at how the world of technical communication is changing. I’ll be heading out on a journey out from behind my desk and into my users’ offices, and hopefully helping you to do the same. Those of us in the technical communication and user education field have a key role in making our users successful; but we’re able to do this only when we fully understand who they are, how they work, and what they need.

Neal Kaplan is Senior User Assistance Manager at Interana in Redwood City, California. Neal is responsible for the creation, delivery, and governance of Interana's product documentation, tooltips, and training content. With 20 years of experience in the field of technical communication and user education, Neal has created many types of documentation and training content for companies ranging from startups to multinationals. His interests and skills include content strategy, information architecture, user experience, and project management. Neal lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two daughters.

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