Conversation as User Assistance
Author: Ultan Ó Broin, Oracle Applications User Experience
March 23, 2011
Applications User Experience members (Erika Webb, Laurie Pattison, and Ultan Ó Broin) attended a User Assistance Europe Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. As well as making a big impact, they were impressed with the thought leadership and practical application of ideas in Anne Gentle’s keynote address “Social Web Strategies for Documentation.”
|Anne Gentle (left) with Applications User Experience Senior Director Laurie Pattison
Anne has written a book called Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation, explaining how user assistance is undergoing a seismic shift away from the old print manuals and online help concept toward a web-based, user community-driven solution using social media tools.
User experience professionals now have a vast range of such tools to start and nurture this “conversation”: blogs, wikis, forums, social networking sites, microblogging systems, image and video sharing sites, virtual worlds, podcasts, instant messaging, mashups, and so on.
That user communities are a rich source of user assistance may not be a surprise, but the extent of available assistance may be. For example, we know from the Consortium for Service Innovation (of which Oracle is a member) that there has been an “explosion” of user-generated content on the web, and that user-initiated community conversations provide as much as 30 times the number of official help desk solutions for consortium members!
The growing reliance on user community solutions is clearly a user experience issue. Anne says that user assistance as conversation “means getting closer to users and helping them perform well. User-centered design has been touted as one of the most important ideas developed in the last 20 years of workplace writing…. Now writers can take the idea of user-centered design a step further by starting conversations with users and enabling user assistance in interactions.”
Some of Anne’s favorite examples of this paradigm shift from the world of traditional documentation to community conversation include:
Adobe Writer Bob Bringhurst’s Blog
Oracle is not without a user community conversation too. Besides the community discussions and blogs around documentation offerings, we have the My Oracle Support Community forums, Oracle Technology Network (OTN) communities, wiki, blogs, and so on. We have the great work done by our user groups and customer councils. Employees like David Haimes are reaching out, and enthusiastic non-employee gurus like Chet Justice (OracleNerd), Floyd Teter and Eddie Awad provide great "how-to" information too.
But what does this paradigm shift mean for existing technical writers as users turn away from the traditional printable PDF manual deliverables? We asked Anne after the conference. Their role becomes one of conversation initiator or enabler, evolving, along with the process, as the users define their concept of user assistance and terms of engagement with the product instead of having it determined for them. It is largely a case now of “inventing the job while you’re doing it, instead of being hired for it” Anne said. There is less emphasis on formal titles (Anne mentions her title “Content Stacker” at OpenStack; others use titles such as “Content Curator” or “Community Lead”). However, the role remains one essentially about communications, “but of a new type—interacting with users, moderating, curating content, instead of sitting down to write a manual from start to finish.”
Clearly then, this role is open to more than professional technical writers—such as product managers who write blogs, developers who moderate forums, support professionals who update wikis, rock star programmers with a penchant for YouTube—anyone with the product knowledge, empathy for the user, and flair for relationships on the social web is ideal. Some may even perform these roles already but not realize it. Anne feels the technical communicator space will move from hiring new community conversation professionals (those who have shown aptitude in the space through blogging, tweets, wikis, and so on) to retraining some existing writers, though this may take time. Our own research reveals that the more advanced proponents of community conversation already set employee performance objectives for professional content curators around the amount of community content delivered by people outside the organization!
Cisco Customer Support Wiki
To take advantage of the conversations on the web as user assistance, enterprises must first establish where on the spectrum their community lies. “What is the line between community willingness to contribute and the enterprise objectives?” Anne asked. “The relationship with users must be managed and also measured.” Anne believes that the process can start with a “just do it” approach of reaching out to existing user groups, individual bloggers and tweeters, forum posters, early adopters and pre-general release event participants, conference attendees, customer advisory board members, and so on. Using tools to establish and measure the level of social conversations about your products and service (a dashboard on the iPad, anyone?) and measure loyalty and experience to showing return on investment (ROI) is the way to win management support.
Anne emphasized that success with the community model is dependent on lowering the technical and motivational barriers so that users can more easily contribute to the conversation. Simple tools must be provided, and guidelines, if any at all, must be straightforward but not mandatory. The conversational approach is one where traditional style and branding guides may not apply. Instead, tools and infrastructure help users to not only create content, but others to easily search and find the information online, read it, translate it, and participate further in its development. Recognizing contributors by using ratings on forums, giving out Twitter kudos, conference invitations, visits to headquarters, free products, preview releases, and so on also encourages use of the conversation model.
None of this is for free of course, but there is a business ROI to all of this. The conversational model means customer service is enhanced and moves from a functional to a valued, emotional level. Studies show a positive correlation between loyalty and financial performance (Consortium for Service Innovation, 2010), and as customer experience and loyalty become key differentiators, user experience professionals must explore the model’s possibilities.
With the digital universe doubling every 12 to 18 months (measured at 1.2 million petabytes in 2010), and 70 percent of that universe consisting of user-generated content (IDC, 2010), the conversational user assistance model cannot be ignored but must be embraced. It is a time to manage for abundance, not scarcity. Besides that, the user conversation approach certainly sounds more interesting, rewarding, and fun than the traditional model!
We would like to thank Anne for her time and thoughts, and recommend all user assistance professionals read her book. You can follow Anne on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/annegentle.
- Consortium for Service Innovation 2010. Dealing with the Content Explosion. Available from: http://www.serviceinnovation.org/blog/?p=91
- IDC, The Digital Universe Decade—Are You Ready? 2010. Available from: http://www.emc.com/collateral/demos/microsites/idc-digital-universe/iview.htm