I once had a question about how an older product worked and went looking for one of the engineers who worked on it. His reply was “RTFM!”. For those who don’t know, that means “Read the F’ing Manual”.
That seems to be a common refrain among many who blame the customer for not understanding how things work.
Well, customers don’t have to figure out how things work, we’re supposed to make products work the way the customers expect them to work or the way the customers will interact in their environment.
“RTFM” should be replaced with “RTC” (Read the Customer)!
How to Help Users Avoid Reading the Manual:
1. Make it intuitive and simple. That means having your product look and behave in the manner that the user expects. You really have to spend time observing the user and doing some serious user experience design work. In hardware such as car radios, users still like knobs and buttons even if it’s all digital. Amazon.com’s interface is incredibly simple to use. Shopping departments are laid out on the left of the home screen, the search bar smack in the top center and the user menu bar just above that. Google’s browser wins for its simplicity – one search input field, 2 search choice buttons, and plenty of white space.
2. Provide Help when they need it. Use online context sensitive help or, better yet, embedded help. Context sensitive help allows the user to see detailed help on that particular screen they are viewing by clicking on a key such as F1. Very good context sensitive screens should have hot spots that link to more detailed help text and also related topics links. Don’t forget to add a print function so that people can print out the help screens for a printed reference.
Embedded Help is the most advanced and best form which guide the user with explanations and actions right on the screen. Tax software such as Intuit’s Turbotax do an excellent job with this.
3. Have a big “Easy Button”. 80% of your users will only use 20% of the product features and vice versa. In fact, some of the advanced functions may lead to serious effects on common tasks and make things appear more complicated. As an example, most digital camera users just want to take, view, and transfer pictures or video, use zoom, and flash when needed. They should never play with a feature such as “dynamic histogram display” and will blame the camera if the pictures look bad because they changed the setting (most will not even know that they changed it). Some Sony camcorders actually have an “easy button” which locks out advanced features so you can do simple point-and-shoot recording. Developers can think of adding “skins” to their software – you see it in software games where the interface changes based on the user level (e.g., beginner, intermediate, expert).
4. Have a "wizard". A wizard in software is like a GPS in a car. It will guide the user from start to finish with a series of questions or inputs. TurboTax employs this - in fact, they tout their product as GPS-like. Beware that wizards are double-edged swords and cannot generally address everything - the flow is serial making it difficult to skip steps (some can be default), they may have too many questions and steps making them tedious or they may miss crucial input making them unusable for all tasks. Thus, wizards tend to target the general user.
5. Make training mandatory with the purchase. This applies more to B-B and ensures that the user must get trained and ensures that they have the basics covered and hopefully, learn to set up and use the product in the manner that they need.
6. Customized installations. You set up the product at the customer site per the customer’s needs and environment. That may mean setting up the product or software settings as required and telling the user to just always press certain buttons (creating a simple cookbook) or doing some customized firmware/software changes. Customized programming should be avoided if possible since it tends to lock the user from future developments and upgrades that would be readily available in a generic standard product.
Aside: I once spent an entire day covering every feature on a system during an onsite training session and then asked the users to take over - all I got were blank stares. I worked overnight creating a step-by-step instruction set tailored to their use and operation. The users loved it and thought the product was the easiest thing in the world. It was night and day.
7. Have Very Good Customer Assistance. This can be expensive since some people will simply want to call and expect you to work them through without expending any effort on their part. On the other hand, you can turn some users into very good customers for life if you treat them right or get them out of a jam when they needed help. I’ve turned customers into product evangelists by making them stars to their managers. Good assistance can also be available online with FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions), Knowledge Forums, and User Forums (the ultimate where users help each other).
8. Make a Simpler Product. This goes back to 80% of your users will use only 20% of the feature and vice versa. Consider a "lighter" reduced feature version or versions of your product to meet the various market segments needs and user personas.