Reasons for moving towards a conversation, towards collaboration, towards the community

What if your user’s guide had to read like an Instant Messaging, or IM conversation – quick, real-time questions, fast answers, and tailored to nearly every potential customer situation? Harry Miller from Microsoft pondered this very question in a podcast in the mid-2000s.

Sometimes users expect precise answers from their user guide. When you work with a product, you want to be able to impress people with your knowledge and efficiency. Or, you have a particular aversion to truly learning a product that you have to use to do your job, but you only use the product once every other month to do a specific (perhaps boring) task. Your manual does not talk back to your users in either situation just yet. But the person who reads the entire manual cover to cover will have conversations in turn with the people to look to him as the expert in the office.

Even if your documentation system can’t “talk back” to your users, your documentation can help customers talk to each other and make the connections that help them do their jobs well, play at home with more fun, or learn something new in a classroom setting. I have ideas for how you can think about documentation and user assistance in a conversational way, perhaps with the help of some social media technology applications.

Now, there are plenty of good reasons for technical writers to avoid actual conversation with customers. We are not necessarily trained in diffusing an angry customer or in troubleshooting the product at the technical level that is necessary. But we are good at learning quickly and applying technology to solve problems. These are not skills left only to the young talkative type, the technically savvy geek, or the extreme extrovert.

You might think that the term social media or a buzzword comes up is that the technology is meant for young people only, or that you have to have a lot of spare time to appreciate things like social bookmarking or Second Life. But the reality is that communicators are already skilled with many of these technologies. We just have to be able to apply them to individual situations and build a business case if necessary.


  • Robert Braxton
    October 2, 2008 - 2:39 pm | Permalink

    In a presentation for the school’s new (future) course management software this very question came up in the form of “is there a search where I can find out right away how to perform a particular function.” The presenter’s answer was “No, there is not” and this demonstrates to me the need precisely for this sort of conversational (back-and-forth, iterative) capability in helping.

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