Vesa Purho
Development Manager, Nokia

The other day, I was thinking about the beginning of my career in technical documentation, and I remembered my first customer visit. At that time in 1995, technical writing was a very young profession in Finland, and no academic education was available. So, I had no clue what to do when we got the opportunity to visit our first customer. What did we do?

Basically, we just agreed on the date and went to the customer’s site. We did have a couple of very simplistic questions thought through beforehand, but those questions were all the preparation we did. Our host showed us the office and the room where all the equipment was, and we talked a bit about their documentation. As the end result, we developed a one page report saying that they didn’t need very much documentation because the personnel were so experienced that they could do most of their tasks without it. The customer had written one document of its own stating the steps and possible problems regarding some procedures. Because we were just starting to write user manuals, instead of delivering them design documents written by engineers and edited by language professionals, we did find it positive that they were willing to comment on the manuals.

What happened after the visit? We actually never got around to sending them documents for comments, or at least they did not have any time to comment on them. We wrote documents according to what we thought was the best solution, but that visit never gave us anything concrete to go on. And the information we did get, we could have received by just asking them for it; the visit did not bring any added value.

Thinking back about those times, it was a positive thing that we even thought of visiting a customer and got the opportunity to do so. Our time was not totally wasted. Now, I would do things a bit differently. Customer visits may at first thought sound a bit scary (how do I behave, what do I wear, what if I say something stupid, and so on) but, as with all tasks, all it takes is a bit of planning. Here are some tips:

  • Think carefully what you want out of the visit. What are the most important things that would help you to write better documents? Going overboard and coming up with tens or hundreds of questions regarding documentation is easy, but remember that the more focused you are, the more detailed information you will get because you have only a limited amount of time. Concentrate on questions that require a user visit and cannot be answered by surveys alone.
  • Write the questions down and send them to the participants before the visit so that they can be prepared. Naturally, if you are just observing the users—doing contextual inquiry—you may not have anything to send.
  • Remember to take the questions with you when you go for the visit. In the heat of the action you can easily forget some of them. Better yet, prepare note-taking material that contains the questions and space for you to write your notes.
  • Don’t be afraid of the users. They are only human just like you. Because you are not likely to talk much to the managers (hopefully you can talk to the people who actually use the product and documentation), you don’t have to worry too much about the way you dress and behave.
  • However, remember that you do represent your company so act accordingly and don’t reveal any company secrets.
  • Take lots and lots of notes. Better to have too much information than too little. Hopefully your report will exceed one page.
  • Finally, remember that the first time is always the worst time. You can learn how to do user studies only by doing them. Naturally, you get the theory part from your studies and books, but becoming skilled in user studies requires practice as with any other skill.