Discussion Results: How do users retrieve and use technical information, and what delivery media best support those approaches?

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Angela Whitney and Sandy Reid, BMC Software, Inc.

 

At the CIDM Best Practices Conference 2008 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, BMC Software hosted a preconference discussion about how today’s users retrieve and use the technical content that supports our products and solutions. The objective of the session was to draw some useful conclusions about the best delivery media and publication mechanisms we can develop to support the changing needs of today’s users and to begin exploring next-generation media for future users.

Figuring out what users need and how to present that information in an accessible, efficient, and effective medium is a big challenge for information developers. As we have learned over the past several years, users are consuming information in new and interesting ways, and information developers must figure out how to present and reuse content in a variety of formats. The book paradigm no longer works for users who want to access information quickly, see only what they absolutely need to know, and have that information accessible on their favorite PDAs—and yet, some users still want PDFs.

What we asked

Approximately 30 conference attendees participated in the discussion. The facilitator led the discussion with questions about user needs, delivery mechanisms, and media.

We asked participants how user needs are changing, how new technologies impact those needs, and how users will want to retrieve the information. Participants responded to questions about which delivery mechanisms (for example, Wiki, video, gaming, etc.) seem most promising, which types of information are best presented in an interactive format, and whether there is a correlation between information type and presentation mechanism (such as using video to document tasks). We also explored the successes and challenges that companies have realized with alternative media, in particular video.

What we learned

From the participant’s feedback, several themes emerged.

Answer the users’ questions and help them do their job.

  • Users need answers to their questions.
  • Users want us to anticipate the problems and challenges they might face. Give users answers that fit the problem and that fit real-world product use.
  • Users want us to help them do their jobs.
  • Users would like us to provide interactivity between the documentation and the product.

Make it easy for users to find the answer.

  • Users expect full-text search so they can find their answers quickly. They are busy, are more impatient, and have shorter attention spans.
  • Users want short topics and FAQs, not books. The FAQ format targets common support calls effectively.
  • Users need information on demand. They want it when they need it.
  • Users want information integrated and connected. If they have to go to separate online help or PDFs, it takes them farther away from the task.
  • Users want to pick their own topics and create their own books. Create packages of content for customers and let them customize. (If you give customers too many choices, they might get more frustrated.)
  • Users want to personalize their content.

Provide users access or links to related information.

  • Users want information integrated and a way to search all of that information. For example, give users the ability to search a troubleshooting knowledge base from an error message reference and show them the related bugs.

Give users an easy forum for reporting issues and collaborating.

  • Users want to be able to comment and contribute—whether through a Wiki or HTML—and feel that what they are saying results in a change.
  • Users trust information from their peers more than they trust information from authorities, which is why they choose to get information from Wikis.

Give users information in a format that suits their work environment.

  • Users need a delivery mechanism that is appropriate for their tools and their work environment. This requires us to understand what the audience is trying to do, how they do their jobs, and the channel in which they need their information.

Technology is changing user expectations.

  • Web-based search engines have changed the way users look for information.
  • With Web 2.0 technology, users expect to be able to comment and contribute to information.

Finding the right answers

So, what are the information needs of today’s users and what are the future information delivery mechanisms for our technical content? Although none of the participants knew the definitive answers to these important questions, we were able to draw some conclusions. Basic user needs do not seem to be changing; users need answers to the questions that help them do their jobs. But today’s users expect the right information to be immediately accessible from the product and to be part of an interactive experience with the product. Users require information in the format that fits their environment and would like short topics they can organize and customize.

To determine what to deliver and how to deliver it, information developers must understand their customers’ needs and the environment in which they consume the information. Technology is changing the way information can be delivered, but, as one participant stated, this is an important subject that requires more discussion.

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