JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

I got a Sony HD Camcorder for Christmas 2010. It’s a lovely little camera and takes beautiful high-definition pictures of Lesser Prairie Chickens and Tundra Swans. I’d like to take even better pictures by using some of the “features” on the camera, like handling low light conditions or making sure that I keep the Pectoral Sandpipers in focus rather than the weeds in the foreground. I just cannot figure out from the documentation how to do either.

Now, you might think I’m being radical—a customer demanding that the documentation actual help me solve real-world problems. But solving my problems will make me a loyal customer, rather than one who is writing this article for everyone to know that Sony Camcorder documentation is the pits. In fact, I’ve even added examples from the manual to my Minimalism Workshop to illustrate how not to write.

Here is the entire paragraph introducing the various menu items available for customizing your work:

“Using the menus, you can perform useful functions and change various settings. If you make good use of menu operations, you can enjoy using your camcorder.”

That paragraph is it. The writer goes on to explain how to get to the menus and customize their appearance on the screens. Quite obviously, there is a cultural issue emerging from the choice of words, particularly the encouragement to “enjoy using.” The writer is obviously trying his or her best here but probably has little information about the way customers might try to use the “useful functions” of the camera.

To be fair, four reference pages list all the features, organized by the menus on which they appear, following this brief paragraph. As an example, consider the explanation of one item on the long list:

“DIGITAL ZOOM … Sets the maximum zoom level of the digital zoom that exceeds the zoom level of the optical zoom.”

If you can figure out what that means, you’re smarter than I am. The intended audience appears to be a professional cinematographer.

Perhaps it’s unfair to ask writers to understand why someone would want to use any of these features. They are asked to document what the software developers create—which is a set of features. For software developers, it’s perfectly responsible to be asked to program a feature into a product. If technical writers are considered extensions of the programmers, they get to document the features, usually with somewhat more information than Sony provides.

Perhaps I should be referred to a webinar on using a camcorder. Or, I may have to find video on the Internet that explains how to use this camera, often created by customers rather than the company. But the manufacturer is leaving me with a problem rather than a solution.

Today, we hear an increasingly loud call, chiefly from customers and support personnel, to document solutions rather than features. I’ve been an advocate of that move for at least 20 years. By getting to know what customers are trying to accomplish, by focusing on customer goals, we can produce information that is genuinely useful. We can fulfill the plan that the Sony writer makes in the quotation above—”you will enjoy using your camcorder.” As a consumer, that’s really my goal.

As everyone knows, people in management who think post-sales support of customers is an annoying inconvenience and an expensive cost center often thwart our efforts to understand the customers’ goals. They prefer to support new feature development because it brings in more sales, at least in their view. Remember that most of the executives in our corporations come from engineering or sales, not customer service or documentation. Yet, customers are telling us that they are more loyal to our products when we support them after the sale. To become loyal customers, they want excellent information and helpful support for their problems. If they become loyal customers, they recommend our products to their colleagues and they buy more of our products in the future.

When we measure customer loyalty, we learn post-sales support is extremely important. When we have a preponderance of loyal customers, we learn that our companies are more likely to grow their bottom line, beat out the competitors, and increase the value of the company stock. But we’re discovering that loyal customers base their loyalty on usability and post-sales support, rather than lots of new features.

In the June 2011 issue of Best Practices, which you receive if you are a CIDM member or a subscriber, I write about the use of the Net Promoter Score to judge customer loyalty. Read that article to better understand the argument I’m making here about customer loyalty.

But first of all, think really carefully about feature-based documentation. It’s easy to get drawn into thinking that feature-based documentation is sufficient. Because of organizational structures in which writers are often assigned to developers and write about what the developers tell them, feature-based writing seems inevitable and even correct. But recent studies of support personnel, training organizations, and the customers themselves suggest otherwise.

Solutions-based documentation will be one of the important topics we address at the upcoming Best Practices conference. Do everything you can to be there.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.