Archive for 2009

Product Information: Inconvenient Truths

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Anyone who’s gone online to find the answer to a question like “Why does my new mouse not work?” will be familiar with forums full of people who prefer not to read instruction manuals. Particularly, perhaps, when those manuals come on a CD and require you to install additional software just to read them. People have more or less specific questions, and thanks to internet search they can usually find someone who has provided the answers.

Top Five Convenience Requirements for Product Information

Let’s face it: you don’t read most product documentation, because most product documentation is inconvenient. In order of convenience, you probably want:

  1. To already know everything you need to know
  2. To have immediate answers to your questions
  3. To have readily available information on the thing you need to learn about
  4. To know that the information you need is available if only you can find it
  5. To be able to give up on whatever you are trying to do and feel ok about that

Know Everything you Need to Know

A great goal for every product, and certainly the claim of many. This happens sometimes, but usually with items like egg timers, pencils and batteries – items that we really don’t expect to have difficulty figuring out. Some still believe it of Apple computers.

Immediate Answers to your Questions

Instruction manuals don’t cut it since they’re not immediate enough or we assume it will take too long to find our simple answer using the index, table of contents or whatever. Immediate answers come from the online forum, or the expert standing at your side. Again, Apple computer use this technique by way of a search feature that is intended to present the most likely useful answers to your queries. For printed documents, ‘Quick Start’ and ‘Troubleshooting’ sheets (often colorful and glossy) are supposed to anticipate your issues with in-your-face instructions in bold type and appealing graphics. But they usually fall short sooner or later.

Readily Available Information on the Thing you Need to Learn About

This is the equivalent of the shelf-full of manuals that used to come with computers, or the substantial book that comes with a new car. The assumption here is that you may actually read these books, perhaps even from start to finish, in order to inwardly digest all the manufacturer feels you should know about the product. In fact you tend to turn to these as a last resort, relying on the probability that such a huge amount of information cannot possibly exclude the one thing you need to know.

The Information you Need is Available if Only you can Find it

You know the feeling. You have such an obvious task that you know there must be a way your new widget can do it, but after a number of unsuccessful guesses you need to find some help somewhere. But no need to give up – after all, the widget manufacturer wouldn’t be in business if the answer wasn’t there somewhere. Maybe try once more online…

Give Up on Whatever you are Trying to Do and Feel OK About That

This is the least convenient aspect of owning your new widget, and perhaps the final chance it has for you to keep it despite the issue, rather than return it and write off the whole experience. The marketers’ equivalent to the sin of despair, they have invoked in you the sin of indifference. They have produced a product whose feature is so hard to figure out, so frustratingly obvious yet inaccessible, that the consumer has simply lost interest and doesn’t care enough to complain. Classic example: programmable VCRs on which the only functions anyone uses are ‘play’ and ‘stop’.

Why This Needs Fixing

As a manufacturer you are keen to bond with your consumers. You want to own a productive and long-term relationship with them. And nothing threatens that bond more than consumers who turn to strangers for information about your products, who are frustrated by them, or who are driven to indifference about you and your brand.

In the upcoming rewrite newsletter we will be looking at how a blend of the first three conveniences seems to be optimal for consumers and manufacturers alike, why manufacturers need to own that blend rather than relinquish it to third-parties, and the steps we can take to achieve it in the most simple and the most complex product documentation scenarios.

In the meantime, for fun here are two examples of self-describing products.

The Self-Disclosing Appliance

This is a knob. If you play with it you’ll find you can turn it and push it. You plug it into your computer and see what it does. It requires little or no documentation, and it’s an extreme manifestation of self-disclosure. Trouble is, it’s correspondingly orphaned from its producer (perhaps that’s why the manufacturer’s name alone is stamped so boldly on it).

It looks like it dropped out of the sky.


The Self-Documenting Appliance

Oh dear. A button for every function, and a label for every button. We know it’s a ‘Bedroom Cordless Telephone/Clock Radio’ because it says so, but with all those buttons we’re sure it must wash the dishes too.

If only we could figure out how to set the alarm.