In a recent post on the Cherryleaf Technical Authors Blog, Ellis Pratt describes four levels of support that users turn to when they need help using a piece of software.
I’m not sure I agree with the order Ellis places these in, so this is my reordering (and rewording) of the four levels:
- Ask a friend – usually by instant messaging, maybe by text or email, increasingly via twitter
- Ask the local expert – Ellis calls this the 50-foot guru: "the person within 50 foot of your desk who is more knowledgeable than you"
- Search for help yourself - most of the time this means Googling for it. You might use another search engine, but Google remains the default means of finding information for most computer users
- Call support - this might mean phoning your internal IT helpdesk at work, or it might mean emailing the company that produces the software with a support question and then waiting for a reply
I haven’t numbered this list because the order is debatable. Some people don’t like admitting they don’t know stuff, so they’ll always search for themselves before asking someone else. Other people have the attitude: I’ve got a helpdesk and I’m gonna use it – and they’ll pick up the phone to support whenever they get stuck. On the other hand, I suspect people increasingly aren’t prepared to wait for a reply to a support call – they’ve got to have the answer right now, which is usually when a local expert is required. And then for some any excuse is a good excuse to text, tweet or instant message their friends.
These four levels relate particularly to younger users – Ellis says "primarily those under 27", I’m not sure why 27 specifically, but I know what he means. Google first emerged into the public consciousness in 1998, when today’s 27 year olds were 15. By that time ICQ and AIM were well established instant messaging platforms. So people around that age and younger have lived their entire adult lives in the Google world, and often they’ve been using instant messaging as an everyday way of chatting to friends since they were in school. I definitely think people in their late twenties and below are less prepared to invest time digging around researching a subject to find answers than people over 40 (like me).
But even I sometimes don’t bother looking up the documentation provided by the software company. In particular, these days I never bother looking up the help systems in Microsoft Office products. Experience has time and time again proved to me that it’s simply a waste of time. There’s obviously lots of information available from Microsoft – usually when you search the Word or Excel help you get lots of results – but you just spend far too long doing all the leg work, looking through page after page, and often don’t find what you’re looking for. Go to Google and search from there and you’ll usually find the information you need among the hits on the first page of results.
But going back to the four levels of support identified by Ellis Pratt. What about the manual, he asks, where does that fit in? Well, in many cases, that’s now one of those things users find by Googling:
many may not recognise it as a manual. It might not have an index, page numbers or a table of contents, but it serves the same function.
The traditional manual is, in most cases, an anachronism now. And traditional ways of creating documentation, based on the way we used to produce printed manuals, are equally anachronistic, even if they’re now applied to creating online help. And hey, if most people get their answers about using an application by asking their friends or the local expert, do we even need documentation at all?
Well the answer is yes. Information still needs to be packaged and presented. It’s just that this can be done in a different way now, and the information very often gets to the end consumer second or third hand. For a variety of psychological and sociological reasons there are still people who are prepared to invest time learning all about an application. This person becomes the guru. The guru gains some sort of reward from this role and he/she passes on the information to others, who can then share the information with their friends. These second-hand recipients of knowledge are not gurus but they can still, from time to time, supply answers to IMs or tweets asking for help.
Apart from the gurus, the other group that still regularly finds documentation useful is support staff. They’ll search a help system on behalf of users who can’t be bothered to do so for themselves. And the support staff may even be involved in writing the documentation (this is the ScreenSteps philosophy). Either way, the documentation is the knowledgebase or knowledge repository in which answers to users’ questions are to be found, and the support staff can answer a support call with a link to a page in the documentation – typically a specific help topic.
As technical writers we should have no fear that there will be no work for us to do in a few years. Software is going to be around for some time to come and all but the simplest software applications need some sort of user assistance. But it might be that we’re not working in a role called "technical writer" – and we almost certainly won’t be writing traditional manuals with a title page, table of contents, chapters, appendixes and an index.
But then – despite what many people imagine – I believe most user assistance professionals aren’t spending much of their time writing that sort of traditional manual right now anyway.