From a recent post by Kathy Sierra at Creating Passionate Users, “What if instead of seducing potential users to buy, we seduced existing users to learn?” I don’t really like the title of her post, which is Why marketing should make the user manuals! because I do think that skilled and talented technical writers can be organized in different locations in the company. But I do like the heart of her question above, about convincing users to learn and care about the technical details of a product. Armed with technical knowledge, our products and accompanying manuals should help us kick butt at our jobs or hobbies.
Manuals as sales tools
She also talks about arming your sales force with these slick glossy manuals and using manuals to sell your product. I’ve discussed a “Tech writers as sales reps?” article and dissected and questioned the best practices in that article in a series of posts. Yes, well-done technical manuals can help close the deal.
Yes, there’s real skill to this tech writing if you want it to be good
I think that good tech writing is a highly-valued skill and includes all the components of design, layout, conviction/convincing, inspiring, motivating, and teaching that the ultimate manual should include. Since I’m motivated to help everyone realize the value of good manuals for selling and sustaining products, I have written commentary on the best practices for tech writing from the “Tech writers as sales reps?” article, including Best practices in tech comm for fit in the organization, Best practices in tech comm for customer feedback, and Best practices for Document Management Systems.
A great example of a “slick” manual
Many tech writers are passionate about their jobs and just need the opportunity to let that passion spill over into their writing, conveying the technical information that inspires users to evangelize about the product they’re using. One such interesting example of a slick manual showed up in the comments on Kathy’s post — a link to a user manual for a microphone. Now, the opening style of the writing has a few too many exclamation points for my taste as a writer and reader, but it is a neat example of bubbling enthusiasm for technical topics and a product that you’ll get the most out of when you thoroughly understand the technical details. Here’s the opening paragraph that is enjoyable but not necessarily technical.
We know you hate to read manuals. So do we! But because the Snowball is such a unique recording tool, we really hope you take the time to familiarize yourself with its features and try the suggested application tips that are designed to help you get the most out of the Snowball. You might just learn something too! With proper care and feeding, the Snowball will reward you with many years of recording and performance enjoyment and it won’t end up as a pool of water on your desktop! Now on with the show. (No refrigeration necessary.)
This introduction sets expectations that this is not a typical user manual while also offering very compelling reasons to continue reading. So I did.
Next, I was delighted with the explanation of the technical design of the mic. A little twinge of early elementary school target audience but not too pedantic.
The Snowball uses two separate capsules to offer you a wide variety of applications. The first capsule generally “hears” what’s right in front of it in a fixed cardioid pattern with a neutral sonic signature (engineering geeks call this unidirectional). The second capsule generally “hears” everything around it with a brighter overall sound (engineering geeks call this omnidirectional).
The best part of this manual is that it offers scenario information for each type of sound that you might be capturing with the mic. Here’s the text from the Strings section. The Snowball is an excellent choice for miking all members of the bowed string family. In general, the diaphragm should be angled toward the instrument’s bridge to pick up a blend of body resonance and bow sound. On bass and cello, placement from 3 to 6 inches in front of the bridge is usually ideal. For violin and viola, it is preferable to position the microphone 1 to 2 feet above the instrument. Angle the diaphragm toward the bridge for more bow sound and low tones, or toward the tuning pegs to capture a more diffuse, brighter sound.
Great practical advice with immediate steps to take to troubleshoot certain problems. That’s good tech writing to me.
Back to the heart of the matter… bridge the gap
I think that my main point on this topic of blurring the line between the stereotypical “boring black and white” manual and “enticing full color” marketing material is that while it may seem like there’s a dividing line between manuals and the rest of the docs that go out with a product, that chasm should be bridged early and often. Keep the conversations going between your users and writers as well as your writers and sales and marketing to continue to help users kick butt after the purchase.
Kathy says she’ll follow up with a Part II to this post and I look forward to reading more. She has a very engaging and enjoyable blog, one that helps you think about passion in new ways.