November 2016
By Carl Carlheim-Gyllensköld and Johan Elisson

Image: © Semcon

Johan Elisson works as a technical communicator and topic-based authoring specialist in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he writes owner’s information for Volvo Cars. He specializes in digital product information and topic-based authoring. When he is not writing for Volvo, he develops and teaches concepts, processes and methods for producing topic-based information.


johan.elisson[at]semcon.com
www.semcon.com




Carl Carlheim-Gyllensköld is based in Stockholm and loves to describe how stuff works. For the last decade, he has worked as a technical communicator for many different customers in various industries, including industrial tools, mining, robotics, dairy farming, telecom, audio technology, consumer products, software... His work has given him great experience in presenting technology to a wide variety of target groups, always focusing on the end user.


carl.carlheim-gyllenskold[at]semcon.com
www.semcon.com


 


 

From product information to product communication

In times of user forums and service portals, user information is no longer a one-way street. But while many manufacturers still ignore – or even fear – user-driven information, we should think of ways to tap into this great pool of knowledge that users give away freely.

One day, our manager came by with her mobile phone. It had crashed and she needed help from her tech-savvy employees. A quick Google search gave us several solutions to the problem; some through video, others through forum threads, some in blog entries. We did what most of us do; we gave each solution a few seconds and decided on one that felt good. Bingo! A few minutes later, the mobile phone worked again.

The interesting thing was that none of the solutions came from the actual mobile phone company. Why?

The product information world is changing

Producing technical information has been a relatively routine process for many decades. Products are manufactured, documented and marketed, and when they are sold, the printed documentation is handed over to the user or distributed to service technicians.

But this world is changing.

With the breakthrough of the Internet, a slow, structural evolution commenced, directing information away from the printed manual and more towards the screen. Handbooks have been replaced by apps and user forums. Information about repair and maintenance procedures is now available in service portals. Accessories and parts systems are digitally distributed and connected to e-commerce websites and business platforms. And now there is the Internet of Things (IoT).

Prepare for the Internet of Things

With the Internet of Things, information will be completely integrated into products. The mission for us as creators of product information will be to continuously describe the components of ever-changing products. Soon we will abandon print completely and instead work with online tools that create modular topic-based structures where information and products are developed simultaneously throughout the product lifecycle.

So what exactly is the Internet of Things? In short, it means that all things running on electricity can and will be connected to the Internet. And we are talking about ALL sorts of things, from large industrial machines to consumer products and even down to small basic components. Washing machines, cars, welding equipment, lamps, refrigerators, clocks... everything.

Why will this happen? Because connected things can be programmed to intelligently make use of each other in order to make human life easier and more efficient. The development of the IoT is something we can utilize, both in order to create a more prosperous planet as well as to save money, or create new money making products and services.

For everyone working with product information – for example manufacturers or suppliers – it is necessary to understand and prepare for this evolution, so that we can face the new requirements put on us as well as benefit from the opportunities they create.

Information must be adapted to each user

The quick Google search to find a solution for our manager’s mobile phone and how we handled the search result highlight one thing: As a user, I have to understand, or believe that I understand, the information right away; otherwise, I will jump to the next search hit. The average attention span, that is, the time we can focus on a task, has gone from twelve seconds in 2000 to eight seconds today. This is one second less than a goldfish, which has an attention span of nine seconds. What does that say about us when we lose interest faster than a small fish swimming around randomly in an aquarium? It is therefore crucial that information is formulated in a way that the user can understand in eight seconds or less – otherwise, the user moves on.

Furthermore, user requirements on information have increased. Today’s users have become used to services like Spotify and Netflix. Information needs to be:  

  • accessible 24/7
  • based on the user's situation
  • accurate and reliable
  • collected in one place
  • understandable with no prior knowledge
  • searchable/findable
  • always up-to-date

Many of these points require interaction with the user or the user’s product. Product information is no longer a matter of sending information one way, from the manual to the user, but rather about information sent back and forth between the user, the product, and the product information. Communication, if you will.

Where are the user and product located? What time is it? Is the product working properly or is there an identified problem or error? What is the software version of the product? What is the product currently doing? How long has the user had the product? The answers to all these questions can, and in intelligent information should, change the information presented to the user. The information really needs to be tailored to the specific situation. If not, the user will spend those eight precious seconds working out that the information is irrelevant to him before moving on to something else.

Users are also more sophisticated now than they were 20 years ago, as evidenced by large online communities of technical dilettantes and self-educated experts. Anyone can pick up a Raspberry Pi, a tablet or a smartphone and take advantage of the power of GPS, database and multimedia server functions, VPN and VOIP without reading a single article or reference topic in a manual or user guide.

Many technical communicators would argue that minimalism in writing is key and that you should provide only the information a user needs. However, it is very easy to write product information with the misconception that the writer himself represents a typical user. It is also easy to underestimate just how many tinkerers and even casual users are capable of customizing and improving the product while demanding specific information from the official user guide.

In the same way, software developers and hardware engineers must balance advanced features with ease of use. A technical communicator must write or rewrite the information with the intention of addressing the evolved needs of the user.

These are tough requirements to meet for the product companies.

The user owns the information

No matter what companies think about it, people will keep talking about them and their products. They write reviews, give tips, discuss and question the products. It has always been like this, but through social networks, blogs, and forums, this has a much greater impact than if they were just talking to their closest friends. Nowadays, people are very quick to communicate to the world what they think and what they know. They record, for example, their own instructional videos showing how to repair a mobile phone or how to remodel it in the best way, and post them on YouTube. The users have taken control of information.

Freedom of choice and participation are needs that are deeply ingrained in most of us. We as users do not want to be passive recipients of information; we want to select and deselect. We want to be listened to, and we want to share our experiences.

It is no longer the companies or the media that determine what information is going to be spread – it is the users.

Information is free

Even outside work, both authors of this article have spent a lot of time explaining how things work. Johan has been an active contributor to the English Wikipedia since 2004. In 2006, the community nominated him to an administrator role. The main driving force behind his 20,000 edits has been to make information available online for everyone, when it previously could only be found in offline sources.

His favorite quote on the online encyclopedia, “Wikipedia is a paradox – it doesn’t work in theory, only in practice,” also gives a hint as to why companies hesitate to take user-driven information under their wing. A rule of thumb for companies is to have a product work in theory before actually starting to produce it – this is why research and development departments exist. However, just as a user-driven encyclopedia does not work in theory, neither does user-driven product information.

Carl is deeply involved in the maker community that started Stockholm Makerspace. The maker community is all about sharing knowledge and ideas via courses, instructions, etc. Users spend their own free time learning new skills and then spread this knowledge to other users. The Internet is full of instructions on how to do almost anything, generated by the making community. Check out sites like instructables.com, ikeahacks.com, wikihow.com, or makezine.com for inspiration.

Companies need to learn how to tap into this new world where users freely want to give away their knowledge. They need to start to communicate, not inform. They need to let go of their rule of thumb and embrace user communities and, most importantly, user-driven information.

A number of progressive companies have already done this, such as the Apple forums hosted under the company flag, where anyone can contribute. The forum moderators can mark up the best posts and answers as “Apple-approved”. This not only lets Apple have a level of control over the information, but also triggers the users to make great contributions.

From product information to product communication

To summarize, the success of product information depends on whether or not a user finds what he or she is looking for. It is the responsibility of the technical communicator to make sure users get the information they need.

How should product manufacturers meet the tough requirements? The first step is to stop trying to bring information to the users and begin to communicate with them instead. Move from product information to product communication.

If you start to listen to and communicate with your users, they will tell you what they think, what they are interested in, what they are looking for, and what problems they are trying to solve. If the company that makes our manager’s mobile phone starts to listen to and communicate with its users, its solution will be first on the hit list.

More and more companies are also beginning to work with information crowdsourcing and user-generated content. The companies using these possibilities have an edge over competitors while users get a better product. It will be a win-win situation for both users and companies.