Some technical writers are proud of the utilitarian nature of their content. This isn’t marketing, they will say, with no attempt to veil their contempt for anything that might please or persuade. The customer has already bought the product, they will explain, so there is nothing left to sell.
This is wrong on a number of counts.
Documentation has to sell
There is a lot left to sell after the user makes an initial purchase. There are more copies to sell across the user’s organization. There is the next version to sell. There are other products your company wants to sell. There are the people that each current customer influences that your company want’s to sell to. But even more basic than this, your content has to be sold to the user. True, you are not asking the user for cash; just for time and trust. But time and trust are currency, and if we cannot command the reader’s time and trust, how can we expect to command our salaries?
Content and the customer relationship
The truth is, there is almost everything left to sell when the user approaches your content. They will need your content most at the earliest stage of their relationship with your company, at the time when their investment is minimal and moving away is easiest, both psychologically and financially. It is the time when cementing a long term relationship with the newly acquired customer is critical. It is the time to sell the idea that yours is a company that is worth establishing a long term relationship with, and your content can and should be a critical component of that.
The customer relationship and the value of tech comm
If the executives in your company don’t value technical communication the way you think they should, it is because it does not help sell this relationship. And if it does not help sell this relationship, it is because we have paid so little attention to making it sell, and because we have been so openly hostile to the very idea that it should sell, that it should have anything to do with selling.
Now you may argue that technical documentation contributes to customer retention by making accurate information available to customers. Sorry, but that is not nearly enough. Customers are not buying the idea of reading the documentation, and if they are not buying, we need to do more to make it sell. If we want to sell it, we need to stage it for sale.
Staging tech comm for sale
Larry Kunz recent blog post, Granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, asks if our content needs the equivalent of the granite and stainless steel of modern kitchens, or if more utilitarian presentation is sufficient and appropriate for technical communication. This metaphor got me thinking about staging — the art of preparing a house for sale — and got me asking if we are doing the right things to stage our content to appeal to the user.
Staging your content for sale is not about fixing the typos and picking the right font. That stuff is often important (though not necessarily always) but it is not staging. Keeping your house neat and clean while you are selling it is important, but it is not staging. Staging involves (from my recent experience) a massive decluttering, the probable removal of half your furniture and possessions (including all but a handful of your books!), repainting in neutral colors, the purchase and installation of draperies and bedspreads, new towels, and the organization of your furniture to give the impression of order, simplicity, and space, even at the expense of any degree of utility or comfort. A staged house is hard to live in, but it sells the idea that you would want to live in it.
Staging products and content
Bruce Tognazzini talks about the buyer as “The Third User” and shows how Apple designs its interfaces to appeal to the buyer in the store, even at the expense of features that would make the interface more usable in everyday use. Just as staging a house makes it hard to live in, but creates a sense of simplicity, order, and space, Apple’s interfaces are staged to create the impression of simplicity and usability, even at the expense of leaving out features that would make them more usable.
It seems to be working for them.
In 5 Useless Elements You Need To Remove From Your Blog Right Now!, Adam Connell describes the impact that decluttering can have on how often people visit your blog and how likely they are to do follow-on actions like sign up for your newsletter. The elements he describes are not really useless — you can think of potential uses for all of them. But they contribute to poor staging of your blog, which detracts from the essentials of increasing visits and generating sign-ups. (Expect some changes in the layout of this blog soon. It needs to be staged better.)
The impression of usability trumps usability
It is not hard to see why the impression of usability trumps actual usability. Practice and familiarity can compensate for all kinds of usability flaws, but usability is moot unless there is actual use. The first challenge is to get the user to use. It’s why drug dealers give out free samples until you are hooked. It’s why the freemium model works. It does not matter how usable something is in principle if it is so off-putting in appearance that no one tries to use it.
Tri-pane help and the staging of content
Here’s the problem for tech comm: the classic tri-pane help system is not well-staged content. From the first touch, it screams “Look how big and complicated I am. Look at how many pages there are. Look at how deep they are nested. Look at all these controls you will have to use to navigate me. Tri-pane help is to staging content what pulling all your stuff out of your closets and piling it in the front hallway is to staging your house.
Help systems may be full of utility — or at least, full of utilities, multiple ways to view and navigate the content, multiple buttons to push to move around it in different ways. But they are lousy staging. They are like a house with all the wires and the plumbing exposed, and no doors on the bathrooms. They scream discomfort and confusion.
The much-maligned PDF is a far less usable vehicle for tech comm than a well-organized online help system, but it is actually better staged. It presents a single pane and a search box. Love them or hate them, everyone knows how to use a PDF. Videos stage even better. While they have their applications, videos are lousy for many tech comm tasks — tedious, impossible to navigate, impossible to search, impossible to use for reference, etc. — but they stage brilliantly. Their entire interface is a single triangular button facing left. No wonder users ask for videos and PDFs even when they are not appropriate or usable for the subject they are interested in: they are staged so much better than the content that would actually help them.
The cost of poorly staged content
The bulk of practical tech comm is and will almost certainly remain topic-oriented and text based. This is the only format that provides the navigation, random access, searchability, and reference capability that users need. But we are staging it really badly. This is bad for our customers, who are reluctant to buy what we are selling. And it is directly damaging to us as a profession. It hurts our reputation and the reputation of our work. Other people in our organization don’t think what we do adds value — because we don’t stage our work well enough for them to see the value, or for our customers to realize the value.
As a profession, we need to learn to stage our content successfully.
Staging complex content
There are difficulties here, of course. Some of the things we document are complicated. Really complicated. But that does not mean that our content has to look complicated. In fact, it is the very reason that the help should not look complicated. Asserting the complexity of the product through the help only serves to discourage the users from trying and learning. It increases the likelihood of their abandoning their task, and in doing so robs them of the success that would encourage and the experience that would teach. This increases the likelihood that they will abandon the product rather than mastering it or that they will abandon our documentation in favor of other sources of information.
Even if a product is complicated overall, that does not mean that every individual task, feature, or concept is complicated. Throwing all the content in the user’s face when they look for help with something simple is distracting them from the simplicity of the immediate task, feature, or concept by asserting the complexity of the whole. Staging content is all about making the individual task, feature, or concept seem inviting to learn or try.
Bottom-up architectures and the staging of content
In the paper world, staging content was difficult. There was no hiding the physical bulk of a paper document, the complexity of its TOC, or the length of its index. Minimalism offered a prescription for improved staging, but at the cost of the loss of comprehensive information. Fortunately, online media don’t have the same constraints. We can create documentation that looks simple in whatever face it turns to the reader, while remaining thorough and comprehensive in the depth of its coverage. Thanks to hypertext linking, we are not restricted to offering the reader the navigation of the whole via a TOC or index — we can offer locally relevant links on every page that can allow the reader to move effectively through the content without ever being aware of how extensive it is, or the overall complexity of the product it describes. Bottom-up information architectures can stage even the largest content sets effectively. We can be well staged, comprehensive, and usable all at the same time, if we put our minds to it.
Some concrete thoughts on how to stage content in future posts. In the meantime, please share your ideas in the comments.