I was rereading some material in the long-running do-people-read-the-manual debate (such as Tom Johnson’s If No One Reads the Manual, That’s Okay), and it struck me that there is an assumption that people on both sides of this debate are making which deserves some scrutiny. We all assume that technical documentation operates at first hand. That is, we assume that when a user wants help, they get that help directly by reading the manual or the help system or by watching a video, etc. I don’t think that assumption is correct. In fact, I’m convinced that it is naively and dangerously wrong, and that measurements and decisions based on this assumptions may be fundamentally flawed and harmful to a company and its customers.
Let me begin with a near-tautology: the influence of a work is not dependent on the number of people who read it, but on the influence it has. Here’s an example: it is one of the most influential books of the 20th century, arguable the most influential. You have either heard or read statements supporting or refuting its conclusions in the last week. Its influence has toppled governments and brought economies to riches and to ruin. You have never read it. Most of the people debating its principles, or acting on them, have never read it. I haven’t read it. You may never even have heard of it. This is it:
It is John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and the degree of its influence, and the justification for my statement that you have heard or read an argument about its ideas in the last week, can be found here. The economic policies of the western world, and all the debates about them, are shaped by this old and, I am willing to bet, dull book that few people have read. Keynes book is almost incalculably influential today, and yet, virtually all of its influence is a second hand.
So, a work does not have to be widely read to be influential, and people do not have to have read the work to have their lives and their actions profoundly shaped by it. Any measurement of the importance or influence of a work that measures only its impact at first hand is badly flawed. As of this writing, John Maynard Keynes has a Klout score of 10. Mine is 32. Much as I would like to believe otherwise, I don’t think I am 3.2 times more influential in the world than the father of modern macroeconomics. Keynes needs to tweet more, clearly, but I can’t help thinking that Klout is simply measuring the wrong things.
Similarly, a user does not have to have read a manual (for manual, read any form or packaging of technical communication) for it to shape their actions and their behavior. I’m willing to bet that there is one person in your family who reads the manual for a new gadget and then teaches everyone else how to use it. (Since I am writing for technical writers, I am willing to bet that someone is you.) The manual reaches you at first hand, and the rest of your family at second hand. Your kids then probably show their friends how to use the gadget. Some of them will then pester their parents to buy the same gadget, and will then teach their siblings and parents how to use it. Let this process run for a while and you could well have thirty products sold and a hundred people knowing how to use them, all based on one person having read the manual.
Does this sort of thing happen with your content and your product? Almost certainly. What do you think is the first thing most people do when they need help? In all likelihood, they ask someone — a friend, a colleague. Isn’t that the way it works in your office? After that there is the use of social networks to ask people for help. Google’s Eric Schmidt was recently quoted as saying:
Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter also allow users to leverage their social networks to find answers to their questions. Google is therefore competing with all methods available to access information on the Internet, not just other general search engines.
In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the role of the maven in distributing information through a society. A maven is someone who is passionate about a subject, who learns and reads about it avidly and thrives on sharing their knowledge with other people. We have our mavens in technical communication — people like Scot Able, Sarah O’Keefe, and Tom Johnson who are constantly in touch with all that is being said and thought and written in the field. Want to keep up to date on all that is worth knowing in the technical communications space? Just subscribe to the twitter feeds of half a dozen or so of the top tech comm mavens. They read so you don’t have to.
Many people start, therefore, not with the manual, but with the maven. First there is the local office/neighborhood/bar maven. If that fails, the social web delivers mavens by mail. And if that fails, then there is still Google to search, where the answer that the user finds may or may not come directly from your docs (especially if they are behind a firewall), but may very well have come from someone who read your docs and posted about your product on line (that is, a maven). Much of the information that originates from your manual, then, may reach the user not through their direct reading of that manual, but via a network of mavens.
In the little domestic drama described above, you are the maven, the one who reads and from whom knowledge flows to others. Every product has its mavens. (Why is there a 1-800 number on a bar of soap? Who would phone a 1-800 number for a bar of soap? As Gladwell explains, the answer is soap mavens.) Want to find the mavens for your product? Go on-line and find the forums where your product is discussed. You will find that there are a handful of people who answer almost all the questions. They are the acknowledged experts on the forum. People admire them and defer to their judgment. They are your mavens. They have read the manual.
Want to know what the best and most influential content in your documentation set is? Ask your mavens. If you need numbers, you will need to multiply your hit counts by the maven quotient. How do you calculate the maven quotient for any particular piece of content? I have no idea, but I would love to hear suggestions.