The Strategic Brief:
When users are not using a feature that was popular in early testing, consider whether you explained the value of the feature as well as the function. Even when the use of a feature may be easily self-taught, the benefit or purpose may not be so obvious. This is a necessary lesson for manual writers and even for those writing simple help pages. Consider asking your writers and editors to bring in samples of good and bad writing. Practising on other peoples work can remove the personal feelings of reviewing written work.
A recent question from a product manager asked why users were not using a new feature. In beta testing, users enthused about the feature. Now it was in the field, only the beta testers seemed to be using it. My response was a simple question, “Did you tell them why they should be using it?” Lack of awareness is the most common reason not to use a beneficial feature.
For years, I used Canon’s point and shoot cameras, but one of my pet peeves was their manuals. The point and shoot camera is intended for the amateur photographer. Taking a good photo can be complex and Canon builds features into the camera to allow for those special opportunities. Below is their attempt to describe the fish-eye effect.
In the Advanced Guide part of the User Manual in a section titled “Shooting with a Fish-Eye Lens Effect (Fish-Eye Effect)”. The description of the feature is detailed as .. wait for it .. “Shoot with the distorting effect of a fish-eye lens”. Well, thanks for that! They do include a sample photo of a dog’s nose using the effect.Most of us are amateurs who never went to photography school and never used a fish-eye lens. Hmm, is this a special feature for shooting dog’s noses? Canon described the feature, but failed to describe why they had bothered to put the feature in the camera. (See the end of this article for my attempt at a rewrite.)Now let’s take a look at how the Nikon S1 manual describes their Creative Modes.
Still quite brief – but what a difference! Nikon describes the feature, breaking it out into what you should do and what the camera will do (especially for Night landscape). Then they add a brief overview of why the feature exists. That extra sentence in each description helps you learn why to use a feature. Nikon’s manual helps you be a better photographer.Technology produces a lot of user guides, technical manuals, and quick start guides. Some are excellent, like the actionable guidance found in most IBM ‘Red’ books. Some are terrible, merely listing the available settings with no guidance as to why the developers thought that feature was worth including in the product. Yes, even for software costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.One habit I picked up as a public speaker was re-writing other peoples speeches. Today when listening to speakers, I try to rephrase statements to improve the ‘punch’ and clarify the goal of the statement. This is a good habit to get yourself and your team into. Get your writers to bring in an example of good and bad manuals. Discuss why they see them as good or bad. Then get them to rewrite a portion of the bad one. As a quick example, here is my rewritten description for the Canon example above:
Shooting with a Fish-Eye Lens Effect (Fish-Eye Effect).This mode simulates the style of a wide-angle lens known as a fisheye lens. The center of the photo is distorted to appear closer to the camera and the edges made to appear more distant. Use this mode to create the impression of being as close as possible to the subject in the photo. In the sample photo of a dog, the full head appears, while the snout gains attention by appearing out of proportion.
Feel free to improve on my rewrite in the comment section.