Joining the User Group
How would you feel if a customer said, “Wow. I feel like I’ve vented. I feel better.” Would you be gratified? Concerned? Worried about all that venting?
When a customer told me this in March, I was thrilled because it meant my team had achieved our goal: to talk with our users directly and find out what users wanted in our documentation. And the best part was that it was easy.
How? We participated in the user group conference for our products. User input is the most important way to find out whether documentation is effective, and I’ve found that user groups are the easiest, most straightforward way to start a relationship between your writing team and your customers. My team’s visibility at user group events demonstrates to customers and management that our publications department is committed to helping users and improving documentation. We’ve gathered anecdotal and statistical data that our department can use, and my writers have enjoyed the luxury of talking to real users about the documents. All of this is possible through user groups.
What’s a User Group?
A user group is a volunteer-run organization made up of users of a particular product. Members share information about how to use the product and advise the manufacturer how to improve it. User groups exist for everything from complex computer software to retail electronics gadgets. In many cases, the groups are run and managed by the users. Their funding, if any, comes from member dues, and their leadership does not answer to the company that makes the product.
Companies have a vested interest in supporting organized user groups and often have close ties to them. Ask your management or check your corporate web site to find out whether a user group exists for your product. If your product doesn’t have a user group, your company may still sponsor user forums or conferences.
Your customer relations or support team probably has a designated representative to the user group’s management organization. Explain to this person that both the company and the users would benefit from your team members attending user group meetings or conferences. The company benefits because you’ll gain a better understanding of customer needs and will be able to provide better documentation; your presence will also demonstrate to customers that the company takes their information needs seriously. Your writers will benefit because they’ll get to meet users and understand their point of view. And users will benefit because they can give feedback about needed improvements, get answers to questions about the documentation, and learn how to use your documentation.
You can suggest holding a focus group meeting with users, discussing documentation during a regular user group meeting, or attending the group’s annual conference. A conference is a high-impact way to meet a lot of users and involve a number of writers in the event. The rest of this article focuses on conference participation and follow-up, but many of my suggestions apply whether you participate in a large conference or interview a single user.
Planning for a User Event
Your team might participate in a user group event by doing any of the following:
- demonstrating the products you document
- including a documentation survey in materials provided to attendees or administering a survey in person
- presenting a paper about how to use your online knowledge base
- providing a “service booth” at the conference with team members demonstrating online documentation and letting users run the documentation themselves
Getting your writers involved in presenting your documentation lets them look at documentation from the user’s point of view. I’ve found many writers don’t even know how their documentation system works because they’re so focused on writing the content! Have them identify specific goals for your team, such as “Gather at least 200 surveys” or “Demonstrate how to use our search engine to at least 100 users.”
Make your pitch to your company representative and to the user group leaders. Reiterate the customer benefits mentioned earlier, being as specific as possible about the information and opportunities users will gain from your participation.
You must also handle the logistics of managing people and equipment. Your company should have an event coordinator who can tell you how many users have registered, what special events or keynotes are planned, and the group’s general expectations for the event. You’ll also need to consider:
Incentives. Users won’t complete your survey without an incentive. A raffle prize helps; giving a small item to each customer who participates is even more effective. Small toys or gadgets work well since users can easily carry them home. Order your goodies from a promotional materials company and get a slogan screened on each item—“We put the pieces together” on a puzzle, or “Right on target!” on a toy dartboard. Make sure you order enough for your writing team as well; these incentives make writers happy, too!
Collateral. Toys bring the users in, but try to provide something useful, too, such as a quick-reference card for your online help or a pocket guide for your product. Be sure this item includes a way to contact your department. The easier it is for users to contact you, the more you’ll hear about what they need.
Surveys. A survey needs to be easy to administer in a busy environment and focused on one or two actionable issues. No one wants to complete a two-page survey while juggling a conference notebook in a crowded room. Checkboxes ensure that you collect quantifiable data and are easier to record later. Ask at least one question that you can repeat in following years to gather comparative data. And be sure to ask whether you can contact the user to follow up. Use an electronic survey only if you have enough computers for several users at once and can test the survey thoroughly before the event.
On a paper survey, make the area where respondents put their name and address the same size as a business card, so users can staple their cards to the form. This saves time for the users, and you won’t have to decipher bad handwriting!
Signage and Environment. Your booth may need tabletop cards, easel signs, or wall signs to let users know who you are. The event coordinator can help identify needed signage and will also tell you your booth size and location, whether tablecloths and chairs are provided, and so forth.
Equipment. Identify all your equipment, from computers, monitors, and projectors to pens, staplers, and a basket to collect surveys. Give the event coordinator your power and network requirements, including whether you need a live Internet connection (which may cost money to rent). Find out what time you can set up, when you tear down, and the name and phone number of the technical support person at the event, as well as the support person for your product. Be sure to allow plenty of time to test your demo systems in the environment before your users get there. In case a system needs to be reloaded, bring backups of all your demo data.
Staffing. Your event leader should know your team’s overall message and what to demonstrate and should be able to troubleshoot equipment issues and coordinate the rest of the staff. It’s important to have someone who knows the big picture on hand at all times, so if the leader can’t be present throughout the event, delegate a co-leader. For the remainder of the staff, try to include as many members of your department as is practical, so that everyone has a chance to meet users. Note, however, that some user groups prefer to limit the number of company attendees to maintain a more independent event.
Training: How to Talk to the Wild Customer
Before the event, set aside time to train your team members. They should know the goals for the event and what the users will learn. Teach your team about your documentation offerings and how to use any online systems. Provide a script for demos, a list of answers to common questions, and practice. But most important, everyone on your team needs to understand how to talk to users.
Talking with users at a conference is like providing free “user therapy” for your product. I’ve found that customers really want a willing ear to listen to their experiences. Here are some guidelines to help your team:
- Listen more than talk; let the user guide the conversation.
- Ask open-ended questions: “How do you prefer to get information?” rather than “Do you like the online help system?”
- Follow up to get concrete details: “When you say you need information sooner, what information do you need, and how early do you need it?”
- Never make up answers. If you don’t know, truthfully say so and record the question so you can forward it to someone who knows.
- Don’t discuss future product plans. If users ask for a feature, ask them to describe how or why they would use it. Tell them you will forward their request.
- Don’t promise anything that you can’t personally deliver.
- Remember that the conference is for the users. Many will be glad to talk with you, but they also want to meet and share information with each other. Honor their time commitments, and don’t press. Instead, bring lots of business cards, get their contact information, and ask if you can follow up with them later.
- Smile, be friendly, and have fun!
The event’s over, your team has spoken to a lot of users, and you have a basket full of survey forms. Now what?
Record any notes and survey data right away. Remember that every data point is useful, even if you can’t act on it now. Ask writers who couldn’t participate in the event to help enter the survey data; reading the answers is next best to being there. Forward questions that you couldn’t answer to the appropriate people, and follow up to ensure that each user gets a reply.
Try to analyze the survey data and prepare your report as quickly as possible so your team and management see the benefit of your participation right away. Was it fun to talk to your customers? Enlightening? Make sure your report captures the liveliness of these events. Feature some of your favorite quotes (both positive and negative), and include photos, if possible.
Take your story to your department, and spread the news to others as appropriate. Customer support, R&D, or product planning teams may need to hear some of the user comments. Entice them into hearing your presentation by offering your leftover giveaway gifts. Make it easy for everyone to follow up: distribute your spreadsheet data or post your database on the intranet so others can find data about users of their product line. Write an article summarizing your findings for your company newsletter or internal web site.
Why I’ll Do It Again
So what will you learn from participating in a user event? Let’s start with what you won’t learn: you won’t see how your customers use your documentation in their environment, and you may not have time to probe in detail about how they use the product. But you will learn their top gripes about documentation and hear about the kinds of information they wish they could find. More important, your writers will learn more about what your customers are really like, and vice versa. They’ll be able to imagine the people who read the online help, and users will know that the help is written by a real person who is interested in their input. And, like the user who told us he “felt better,” your user may just thank you for it!
About the Author
Technical Publications Manager
Barbara Heninger trained as a journalist at the University of California–Berkeley and became a technical writer in 1982. She has participated in user group conferences for her products since 1995, and in 2000 she received an award from the CEO of her company for her customer advocacy. She has received six STC awards for documentation in Northern California competitions and made presentations at the STC annual conference in 2001 and 2004. A version of this article appeared in the STC Intercom in February, 2006. Her web site is www.barbwired.com. She is currently employed at Synopsys, Inc. in Mountain View, California, and participated in the Synopsys User Group conference in March 2006.