JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

December used to be a slow month in technical communication circles, a time when everyone could catch up on special projects and make plans for quality and process improvements for the new year. Lately, December has been as busy as any other time of the year. I hear from colleagues that they spend December working on product releases, just in time for the beginning of the first quarter.

It’s unfortunate that the “slow” times have become victim to the ever more feverish attempts to impose new releases on a weary customer base. The major motivation seems most associated with recognizing more short-term revenue rather than providing a service or creating more usability and quality in a product.

Recently, we worked with the development team on a new product that was clearly not ready for release, but released it was even though no one seemed able to explain to us why any customer would want to use it in its present state. In fact, it took us several weeks of inquiry with product management and development to even understand what user needs the product was designed to support. No one seemed clear about the intent. Since our job was to critique the user interface and suggest improvements, it was essential that we understand the users and their intent. That basic information seemed to elude both the developers and us for some time. Even with the UI improvements, the usefulness of the product seemed quite illusive.

Some analysis on this project to better understand the users and their requirements would have saved a lot of time and money and hopefully produced a more viable product.

The same is true, of course, for information development. Working in isolation from users of the information virtually guarantees that writers produce much that is not needed and omit much that would be genuinely useful. We all know, including the legions who continue to enroll in our Minimalism workshop, that without understanding the users and their goals and agendas, we are unlikely to produce information they will actually need and use. However, writer after writer informs us that there is no time or “no permission” to learn from users.

It’s clear to me that we need more user analysis time because it is essential that we know what our readers need from us. Without consideration of genuine needs, we are more likely to rush toward the latest fad. Organizations are jumping on the video or social media bandwagon, at the urging of product managers and executives who see these, not as a customer service, but yet another way to save money on the “necessary evil” of technical information.

Certainly, organizations have seen some success stories with new social media, but if social media is just another way to distribute feature descriptions or teach button pushing, it will quickly die away for lack of fundamental usefulness.

We need more time of our own to pursue customer studies. That means creating personas based on interviews with real people. It means creating user scenarios based on interactions with real working environments, not development-focused use cases that describe people as button pushers of interface objects. We need to experience what our customers do in the workplace, when they interact as members of a group, some of whom need different information than others. We need to examine and analyze their Stages of Use, a user analysis technique that we cover in our Minimalism workshop and first posited by Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus in their 1986 work, Mind over Machine.

Ginny Redish and I included many recommendations for conducting user studies in our 1998 book, User and Task Analysis for Interface Design. Don’t be misled by the title; we include methods for using analyses for information design.

Next, consider our Task Analysis workshop, in which we cover techniques for setting up customer studies and using the results to develop an annotated topic list for a DITA implementation. It’s a great way to connect the dots between analysis and development.

Thirdly, consider getting direct help through coaching. I’ve worked with many teams over the years on their first site visits, focus groups, and online interviews. If you’re a bit uncomfortable talking with customers, coaching is a great way of learning.

Consider MAKING the time, rather than finding the time to know your customers better. It will help you reduce the amount of information you are now developing that no one needs or wants. It can save time and money by ensuring that you focus on the most important information first. It can improve the findability of your information on the Internet because well designed and targeted information is likely to be uncluttered with content that nobody needs.

It’s December—which means that some corners of opportunity may present themselves. Take advantage of them and begin 2011 with increased knowledge and confidence that you’re doing the right thing.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.