How to Qualify Your Content with Users

On Target

Photo credit: viZZZual.com (Flickr)

The danger about writing a user guide is the possibility that you’re completely missing the mark. It’s possible that those installation and getting started instructions you spent hours perfecting weren’t at all what your users needed help with—they really wanted to learn about your plugins. Or, that slick PDF manual you created has gone unread because your customers have been looking online for help.

How do you make sure you’re providing the right content in the right way for your users? Easy—just ask ‘em! Here’s just a few ways you can qualify your content with your customers:

1. Use a technical writer who doesn’t know jack. One of the biggest pitfalls in writing a user guide is forgetting what you know. If you get too involved during product development, it’s easy to forget everything you’ve learned along the way and to assume your audience knows it too. But a technical writer who is less familiar with the product has the same questions and the same initial uncertainty that your users will have. Being able to identify with your users is one of the most important aspects of technical writing.

2. Turn your customers into guinea pigs. If you’re collaborating with a customer on development, have them test the user guide as well as the product. If possible, observe them using the instructions and take copious notes about their experience. Ask good questions, but keep it to just a few. Here are some examples:

  • Was the user guide easy to use?
  • Could you find the information you needed quickly?
  • Were the instructions easy to understand? What was confusing?
  • Were the instructions complete?
  • Does the format (PDF, online help, FAQ, etc.) make sense?
  • Do you have any problems to report?
  • What was most helpful about the user guide?
  • How can we make the user guide better?

3. Make it like a Sunday morning. As in, easy. You know, “Easy like a Sunday morning?” Never mind. The more onerous it is for users to give feedback, the less feedback you’ll get, so make it easy for them (like a Sunday morning). Here’s a few ideas:

  • If your instructions are online, include a short feedback form or a comments field at the bottom of each topic. Your feedback form should have only two items: Was this topic helpful? and Comments. The example below is darn close.Feedback form
  •  If they need to register their product, reply with a gracious thank-you email and ask them to give their opinions of the user help, with a link to a short form. You’ll probably need to provide an incentive for this (see below).
  • Create a button on the Products page of your website that solicits their feedback about your documentation. Not only will it show visitors that you care about your customers’ experience, but it will draw their attention to the fact that you’ve got great support documents that they can rely on.
  • If you’re using a printed manual, include an invitation at the front of the manual to email their feedback to you—and make that email address hard to miss. Again, you’ll need to provide an incentive.

4. Give them more than a penny for their thoughts. Any feedback your users give is inherently an interruption in their work flow, especially if your user guide isn’t web-based. The greater the interruption, the greater the incentive should be. Most companies don’t offer incentives for feedback—probably because they don’t care if they don’t get much response. But if you want to maximize participation, you should at least consider making it worth their trouble. Some ideas:

  • Reward feedback with a freebie. This could be in the form of free content, swag, a plug-in or an unlocked product feature, a discount for their next purchase, or something totally off the wall and just plain fun.
  • Recognize them publicly on a page of valued contributors.
  • Enter them in a drawing for cash prizes or a rebate.
  • Comment fields inherently provide an incentive—once you post your comment, it’s published for the world to see and reply to!
  • Whatever you do, send them a thank-you email (or better yet, a hand-written note!) and tell them how much you appreciate their feedback and their business.

5. Spy on your users. If possible, use Google Analytics to monitor user activity on your help pages. You can use this data to make educated inferences about your user guide. You can also combine A/B split testing to analyze correlations with support calls: See which versions of your help correlate with fewer calls.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to qualify your user guides. This is a great opportunity to be creative and have fun with your users, too. Do something that stands out! Just be sure to make it easy for them and to make it worth their effort. The more trouble it is to give feedback, the greater the payoff should be. If you can collect data without interrupting your users at all (e.g., Google Analytics), all the better!