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Mind Your Posture or RTFM? Mon 25 Feb 08

Toy_sampling_megaphone_altemarkMarketing guru, Seth Godin recently had an extremely interesting blog post, "The posture of a communicator".  It's a short post but a powerful one.  I believe it gets to the heart of one of the biggest complaints people have with IT, namely, our poor communications.  IT is well known for its speaking in acronyms, writing cryptic error messages, writing incomprehensible (and not very useful) user guides, and using "code words" rather than plain language.  We often top it off with an arrogant attitude when people tell us they don't understand what we are saying.

Godin's first sentence gets right to the point.

"If you buy my product but don't read the instructions, that's not your fault, it's mine."

I'm sure there are a lot of people in IT that would disagree with that statement.  You know the ones.  They're the ones that complain about users not reading the manual and just wish they would "RTFM" (read the f*&%$#*$ manual). 

Should our users read the manual?  Do I wish the would read the manual?  Absolutely!  But the reality is they don't.  As Godin states:

"It's really easy to insist that people read the friggin manual. It's really easy to blame the user/student/prospect/customer for not trying hard, for being too stupid to get it or for not caring enough to pay attention. Sometimes (often) that might even be a valid complaint. But it's not helpful."

The key phrase there for me is "But it's not helpful."  That's correct, it's not helpful.  As a service provider our job isn't to be "right" but to make sure the customer can use our product.  So it doesn't matter if we are right about thinking they should read the manual since it doesn't help.

Along time ago I learned that you have to sell they way your customers want to buy.  I think it's clear most of our customers do not want to buy the way we've been trying to sell to them.  If we want to be effective this gives us two options:

  1. Convince our customers that our methods are the better way to buy.
  2. Change the way we sell to the way they want to buy.

People will change their buying method once they see the benefit for them.  People switched from small store shopping to mega-discount stores and from retail shopping to internet shopping once they saw some benefits for them.  The first option can be a very long and difficult education process and is often unsuccessful. 

If we want to get people to read our manuals we need to make it easy for them to switch from non-reading and provide something of benefit to them.   Some of the things I think we need to do:

  • Most importantly write in clear, simple, straight-forward, non-jargon language.
  • Provide help in many forms: user guides, online help, CDs, short video etc.
  • Write error message that non-programmers can understand.  Make sure that the message contains 3 elements:
    • What the problem is.
    • What the user should do.
    • Where they can get more help or information.
  • Provide better indexing/tagging of answers.  An answer you cannot find is no answer at all.

Klariti.com has some very useful tips on how to write a user guide and how to write error messages.

Many software developers give away free help (online, manuals, etc.) with the software.  And yet people are willing to pay to get supposedly the same informations from the "For Dummies" books.  Sounds like the market is saying we need to change our approach.

What do you think should IT go for the "Posture of a Communicator" or go with the RTFM approach? 

"Toy Sampling Megaphone" photo by altemark

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