Casual users and Power users – what type of online help do they want?

I have been scanning through some of the presentations at the STC Summit that I had to miss due to the packed schedule, and Scott DeLoach’s presentation, Best Practices for Developing User Assistance caught my eye. He has slide after slide of Facts listed based on research in user assistance. Facts from those important and difficult-to-uncover research studies in the ways people read help and read on the web. The citations are excellent!

He starts by separating out the stages of use, saying 80% of your readers are in fact the casual user (novices and advanced beginners), and the other 20% are power users (competent performers, proficient performers, and expert performers). These definitions come from Dreyfus and Dreyfus’s Mind over Machine: the power of human intuition and expertise in the era of the computer.

The great thing about Scott’s presentation is that he offers citations for each of the claims he makes, even when (and especially when) there is a slight difference in interpretation that may affect your design or writing decisions.

Of special interest to me is his claim that the Power Users are the ones who want online communities. For some companies, I wonder if that means that building an online community is considered to be “icing on the cake” and a project that can’t be funded because it targets a smaller group of users. In companies with mature documentation sets, though, it seems like building an online community with the available tools would be a natural next step for technical writers.

What do you think? Do novices and beginners want a community online? Or are communities reserved for the power user?


  • May 12, 2009 - 7:30 am | Permalink

    I agree that building a community is a natural step but, largely I believe it comes at to great a cost (still). Who can afford to step away from the usual stresses of keeping up with a development team to spend time building and maintaining a community website?

    What I’ve yet to see, and I’ve tried producing this myself and struggled, is how to build a business case around this that includes a validated ROI. If I can’t convince my boss it’s worth my time building it, then it doesn’t matter if ‘they’ come or not, it’ll be running at a loss from day 1.

    I’m not saying it can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done, but I guess (yes, it’s a gut feel thing) that a lot of technical writers have yet to push forward in this area because, largely, the benefits are still to make themselves fully apparent on a large scale (think: Tipping Point).

    Scott’s presentation sounds intriguing though, is it available online?

  • May 12, 2009 - 8:46 am | Permalink


    Communities often suffer the “dating site problem”: they’re no fun if no one else is there and it takes a certain critical mass before they begin to function smoothly. However, as you’ve pointed out, many companies have a large asset base of existing content that, if published properly, could be the foundation for a user community that might avoid the problems of low early participation.

    A community should be built with an understanding and acceptance of the standard 90-9-1 rule ( 90% of the participants are passive and don’t contribute, 9% will read and respond if something catches their eye, and 1% are active contributors and create new content. There was a nice article in the NY Times recently about Verizon’s experiences with their user community:

    If you’re going to build a community site you should ensure that you’re building features to help users move through the various phases. Ultimately your goal is convert some of the 90% into the 9%, and some of the 9% into the 1%. You can’t avoid the rule, but you can attempt to optimize around it.

    I would argue that beginners do want a community. Essentially they represent part of the 90%, and even those folks can derive value from what they read and find in a properly delivered community site.

    Even more powerful, and to touch on one of Gordon’s points in his comment, is that your community is also a sales tool. When users are looking to be influenced they often go looking for evidence to help them decide as to whether to buy a product or not. I believe that a lot of people will use the activity of a community, quality of the documentation, and general feeling of transparency a company gives off as a significant purchasing decision. If measured properly, this could provide significant justification for any community effort.

    Take care,


  • May 12, 2009 - 9:14 am | Permalink

    Good comments Gordon, and thanks for joining in Louis. I talk about the 90-9-1 rule all the time when presenting and it usually surprises people when they run the numbers. 🙂 I’ve seen the 1% optimized to 1.72 (MSDN’s community) but interestingly, Wikipedia’s numbers are more like half the edits are made by less than 1% at 0.7% of the contributors. I wrote it up here:

    I’ll see if Scott will post his presentation on slideshare – he’s at His presentation will be available on the STC website in a while.

  • May 12, 2009 - 10:30 am | Permalink

    In my personal experience, when I’m first starting out with a technology is when I’m most likely to use an online community related to that technology. If the community is responsive and welcoming, then I’m likely to stick around and pay back as I gain experience. A community that is “reserved for power users” seems to me unlikely to grow organically.

  • May 12, 2009 - 12:59 pm | Permalink

    I think that people want to be able to get product support, information, etc. online, but not necessarily have to join a “community” to access it. Give users the information, and let them join the community if they feel like they have useful information to provide. As far as the power v. casual users, I think that power users would be more likely to join a community, and casual users may either just find a workaround or refrain from using an application feature altogether. Casual may feel intimidated or overwhelmed by power users. Creating different “neighborhoods” within the community would be one to address this issue.

  • May 14, 2009 - 1:45 am | Permalink

    Hi Anne!
    I feel that communities are formed when a group of users shares a common interest on a particuler subject or ideology. One should not limit online community for the power users in a way that it should only be valuable to them.

    A community plays a very important role in the growth of our society and living, and knowing people of different minds. The same is applied in an online community, where the scope is much more broader. If we can achieve something constructive out of an online community, irrespective of the user being a novice or power users, we consider it to be a good for the humanity.


    Harjot Dhodi

  • May 14, 2009 - 6:26 pm | Permalink

    The ROI comes when your power users begin training others on your products. This training means more new users become satisfied long-term users.

    For example, look at what Tom Johnson has done with WordPress.

    Happy power users will spread the news and increase your market share.

    Struggling users can have a negative impact on how prospective buyers react.

    Perhaps casual users won’t participate in the communities, but they will monitor them and base purchasing decisions on what they hear. (For example, how many lurkers subscribe to the HATT list just to keep updated on tool news? Quite a few, I’d wager.)

    I say give the power users the communities they want, and watch them become your sales force. Just make sure your product doesn’t stink!

  • May 15, 2009 - 2:35 am | Permalink

    Craig Haiss – that ROI you mention is the same one that can be stated for any technical information. Justifying why you spend money on a technical writing team is largely the same, you make users more proficient, drive product enhancements and if the cycle works, you grow power users that become (free) advocates/evangelists for your product.

    It’s the numbers part of the equation that is always hardest as, largely, you are stacking up a LOT of work hours against an unknown return. Lots of “I” but what of the “R”? Not saying it’s not possible, but like most people that business case needs to satisfy on the number side. No?

  • May 15, 2009 - 9:08 am | Permalink

    Agreed, Gordon. The numbers are hard to quantify.

    You have to hedge your bets based on the quality of your product. Do you have a product people love, and an established user base (think Photoshop or WordPress)? If not, efforts should be directed toward improving the product.

    If you have passionate users, the community will grow.

    The investment can be reduced by using established technology, offering social rewards for power users, insisting on transparency (unpoliced conversation), and allowing your own developers to participate so people get the inside story. All of these will help draw in users and build a grass-roots message about the quality of your product.

    Look at Techwr-l and HATT. Both have a ton of subscribers, but use simple technology.

    If ROI is a concern, reduce the “I” so that little investment is necessary. Build a community with free tools and focus on the people aspect. The financial folks can’t argue against zero cost.

    Volunteer to build a community using free tools, and have a good time doing it. Make it more fun and less corporate, and people will participate.

    Just like we’re participating on Anne’s blog. ;o)

  • May 15, 2009 - 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Building an ROI isn’t always impossible, it is however, always difficult. One approach that you may all want to consider is expanding the audience beyond the technical writing staff amd into non traditional areas like sales and marketing.

    If, for instance, the sales staff had access to user documentation that was granular enough to be readily “repurposed”, they might be able to use whole sections of this work in response to those “one off” prospects that don’t use your goods/services in your traditional way. (I’m assuming here that Marketing has good deliverables for “regular” opportunities).

    Saving hours in the creation of a written responses results in more time actually talking with prospects and ultimately more sales. Once you get a salesperson saying that is possible – it is much easier to quantify an ROI since you all know what your average sale/margin/lifetime value of a customer is.

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