Jonathan Price
The Communication Circle, LLC


When you ask for help in an Office 2003 application, you get a task pane over on the right with a section at the top called “Assistance” containing a Search box and a link to a Table of Contents. The next section highlights several new or popular articles on the Microsoft Office Online site, plus links to the Web assistance, training, communities, and downloads. At the bottom of the pane, a “See Also” section provides links to What’s New, Contact Us, and more.

If you type in a query at the top, you get a set of results “from Office Online,” the Microsoft site dedicated to content about Office. Underneath the title of each suggested article is a grayed-out row of breadcrumbs, indicating where the content appears in the overall table of contents. If you click the title, a “help” topic is downloaded from the site into a new pane, or an article launches a new browser window.

Similarly, if you choose the Table of Contents in the original task pane, the top level of content, downloaded from the Web, replaces everything else in the pane, and when you dig down and choose a topic, a second pane opens, containing an article from the Web. (The original pane, with the table of contents still open, slides left to make room.)

Each article ends with the question, “Was this information helpful?”

If you click Yes, you get this message:

Thank you for your comments. Please note that while we cannot respond to all comments individually, Microsoft continually makes improvements based on suggestions and feedback from users. Have a question? Contact us.

So even if the user is satisfied with the information, Microsoft invites contact—in many ways.

If you click Contact Us, though, you do not get an email form as you might expect. You go to a Contact Us page on the Web, urging self-help via the Assistance site, other Office users in Office communities, or the Knowledge Base. You can also get professional support, some of which costs money. Then you are invited to give traditional feedback: reporting a problem with the Web site, or making a suggestion on a product or feature. And finally, you are told that you may suggest new content for Office Online in four categories: new templates, Help articles, training courses, or clip art and media. That’s a lot of ways to make contact!

If you keep scrolling down, you even see articles describing how the feedback process works. The first link, “Learn more about how Office Online collects and uses your feedback,” takes you to a page titled, more attractively, “You talk: We listen and respond.” Very encouraging!

That article starts off in a conversational style, which is intermittently interrupted with group-speak. “Yes, we do listen to your feedback. Low ratings and your comments are the primary criteria we use to determine whether and how to improve an article or topic to increase customer satisfaction.” (Of course, most of us cannot tell the difference between a topic and an article, and some of us may feel stiffed when we are lumped together with the great horde of “customers.” So the tone does veer toward insider jargon, at times.)

But then comes the key point:

General comments such as “Nothing was right about the topic,” or “This article stinks,” are not specific enough for us to take action on, whereas a comment such as “The

[feature] is grayed out and the procedure doesn’t tell me how to make it available” gives us enough information to figure out whether other customers are having the same problem. Remember, the more detail you provide, the more likely it is we can interpret and address a problem correctly.

Excellent, hard-hitting, and clear. This kind of detail reassures us that someone, somewhere, really reads our comments—otherwise, why would they care what exactly we say?

And the article makes clear that we make a difference when our comments, combined with those of thousands of other people, suggest a trend.

To make the broadest possible analysis of the daily data we capture, we have metrics for determining which articles and topics we’ll revise. When an article or topic gets low ratings, and if your comments identify a particular trend, we make the necessary changes to improve our assistance.

The writer promises to keep tracking that trend, too. “We continue to examine data on an ongoing basis to ensure we make the right changes for the greatest number of customers.”

So as a user, I may be in a herd, but at least the team is listening to our collective mooing and lowing. If I still long for contact with a human being, of course, I may feel disappointed by the lack of a return email. So the writer cautions: “The feedback buttons at the end of a Help article or topic aren’t designed to give you the immediate assistance you can get from technical support staff.” Then I get a link to Microsoft Product Support Services.

Fair enough. And at the end, the writer invites even more feedback and concludes, “Your feedback is essential to making everything about our products better.”

Amen to that!

Another article in this section of Related Information features the Crabby Office Lady pleading for feedback. She starts off telling us we should not talk with our mouth full, talk to strangers, or talk back. Then she realizes she has made a mistake. “Wait. While I think all those directives have value, that last one has no place on this Web site. I want you to talk back.”


She points out that when you respond to an Assistance article, your feedback goes directly to the writer of that article. “Your missive gets to the one person who can make a difference and save the world from the scourge of an awkward tip, an inappropriate graphic, or a badly constructed sentence.”

In another article, the Crabby Office Lady tries to prove to us that our comments actually make a difference. For example, by default, Outlook displays your contacts sorted by first name. “Frankly, that is irritating to many of you since we’ve all been taught to alphabetize by last name first. And since we writers here can’t really change the program itself, the only thing we can do is offer a way to get around this little irritant.”

Wow—I am hearing from an actual person, a writer, not a corporate committee. And second, the writer actually recognizes that a “feature” can be (somewhat) annoying.

So the team changed the title from “Change how Contacts are filed and Address Book entries appear” to “Display the Contacts list in LastName, FirstName format.” And they added a paragraph at the beginning of the article explaining how the list works. The rating on the article went up almost 33 percent, the Crabby Office Lady says, “and the writer who fixed the piece was hero for the day.”

Another time, she had urged users to distinguish their Excel worksheet tabs by color—only to find that before Excel 2002, there was no such feature, so she added a qualifier about versions.

And some users who wanted to format lines in Word got an article about formatting lines in Visio. Alas, the article itself forgot to mention what program it was about, so it announced features that just do not appear in Word. The solution: an extreme makeover. From three sentences, the article was expanded to cover line patterns, line weight, line caps, line ends—with art. Originally, the rating was “too low to mention—I’d be censored.” With the changes, the rating skyrocketed.

Oh, and at the end of some of these columns you discover that the Crabby Office Lady actually is a real person—Annik Stahl—and she has a real email address. Fantastic. In my opinion, all articles ought to be signed and not just by “the team”.

Overall, the tone is quick, friendly, and efficient—and the style approaches the conversational often enough to maintain the illusion that we are listening to a real person on the other side of the screen, not some corporate consensus or official pronouncement. I’m excited to find so many ways to interact with the content and the individual writers. As a user, I appreciate the chance to sound off when I am upset, and to get the inside dope on how my comments are going to be used. I feel reassured and encouraged; I look forward to returning to this discussion.

Microsoft, then, has caught the spirit of the Web. People want to talk with other people—even if they have to chat, discuss, email, or fill out forms via the computer. We are willing—no, eager—to take advantage of any opportunity to swap opinions, ask for help, and offer suggestions. And the Web makes these exchanges convenient, intuitive, and attractive.

Because of Microsoft’s influence, this kind of “customer-driven publishing” will soon become a model for many other corporations. As managers and writers, we will be building the infrastructure for this give-and-take. And as customers ourselves, we will probably be participating—offering ratings and comments, joining discussions and building communities. Through such simple functions as links and “continuous connection,” the Web has developed what complexity theorists call “emergent behaviors,” such as the feedback loops evolving here in a life of their own. In the Microsoft Office Online Assistance, then, we see the way that millions of people can interact, developing this strange, wonderful, and virtual conversation.