December 11, 2009

Keeping Close to Users – Everyone Should be Tech Support for Someone

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 8:48 am
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Help Desk signDuring this holiday season, I know that many of you will be facing phone calls from friends and family who assume that because we work in the industry, that they can call on us at any time for technical support. Rather than be frustrated with our loved ones and resentful of their assumptions, this year I’d like to suggest that you try to see those family tech support calls as a Good Thing.

Everyone involved in creating hardware, software, and documentation needs to remember what it is like to be a new user. Those requests for help are your chance to keep in touch with novice users and observe their struggles to learn new technologies. So as you help Great Aunt Ruthie figure out how to program your phone number into her new cell phone, remember to observe and take mental notes.

How do novice users react to new technology? Do they dive right in and start playing? Or, like my mother and the laptop that she bought last summer but hasn’t taken out of the box yet, are they hesitant to move forward without an experienced user to guide the way?

Do users know that online Help is available? Do they read the manual? Last year my father bought a new cell phone two days before a family vacation. He spent the whole trip playing with it, learning the new features. At some point he was cursing at it, and I gave him The Eyebrow and suggested that just maybe, since his daughter is a technical writer, he might consider reading the manual? He said that he’d rather play with it and figure it out for himself. *sighs* Thanks Dad, love you too.

Do users only go to the documentation when they’re stuck? When I bought my first laptop, before I had high-speed internet, I spent two days trying to figure out why I couldn’t get on the internet with my phone modem. Finally, after getting thoroughly frustrated, I decided to check the manual, only to find that I’d been plugging the phone cord into the network port by mistake. Oopsie. Ever since them I’ve been much better about reviewing the documentation when I buy new products.

When users do consult the documentation, how do they search for information? Do they use the Table of Contents, the index, or the search feature? Conventional wisdom in the TW community seems to be that users do not use indexes, and it has fallen out of fashion in the industry. (Microsoft, I’m looking at you.) I am a fan of indexing however, and I suspect that if users truly have abandoned indexes, it is because we have done such a bad job of constructing them. Most indexes are woefully short, and often don’t contain the most common terms for features. For example, I have a digital camera and wanted to find out if it has a timer feature that would let me take pictures of myself. I searched the index for various keywords, delay, timer, etc. I finally resorted to reading the entire index, only to find the feature listed under self-timer, a term I never would have searched for.

Is the documentation adequate to the user’s level of experience? I’ve been tackling a few home improvement projects around the house lately. Last weekend I was attempting to install new towel rods in the bathroom, but found the rather short instructions on the package inadequate. The instructions assumed previous experience with home improvement and tools, which I do not have. I could not successfully install my new towel rods using the provided instructions.

Can users find what they’re looking for in the documentation? Or do they have to resort to Google or an experienced user to answer their questions? In order to successfully hang my towel rods I had to read through a couple of different home improvement and do-it-yourself Web sites before I found clear instructions appropriate to my novice-level handyman skills.

This holiday season I’ll be headed down to visit my parents, where I will be assisting my mother with that new laptop. Mom is computer illiterate, but last summer when my father was off on his annual motorcycle trip she bought herself a laptop “because it was on sale.” I understand why she hasn’t asked my father, a retired mechanical engineer, for help. This is the man who taught me how to drive a car by pulling out the encyclopedia and having me read the section about manual transmissions. Like many engineers, he’s highly educated and can’t remember what it is like to be unfamiliar with technology. Since I try to roleplay novice users when I’m writing, I am happy to help mom. It should be an educational experience for both of us.


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