Social media meets technical writing: two stories

It’s been a deeply snowy winter in Massachusetts, with many roofs collapsing under the strain. Our snowblower, a powerful but flimsy model by a manufacturer that shall remain nameless, stopped moving, so we bought a new drive belt, and one Saturday I tackled the replacement job. I followed the owner’s manual carefully, up to the step that read, “replace the belt.” There I got stuck, because in the cramped space I could find no way to get the old belt off.

As is my wont, I sat on the driveway and stared at the mechanism, trying to see some way to proceed. My oldest son, who was helping, suddenly said “wait a minute” and darted into the house. He came back with his iPad and started tapping on it. Shortly he announced that he’d found a user forum for that make and model of snowblower, and that the collective opinion of participants was that the step was bogus: removing the drive belt required removing the entire auger housing. The product sucked, went the speculation, and the manufacturer wanted to force DIYers to pay for service. I don’t know about that, but the advice made me stop trying to get the damn belt off. Without it, I would have frustrated myself trying in vain. (It turns out that cleaning two years’ worth of mouse nests out of the housing apparently did the trick; the snowblower worked fine for the next snowstorm.)

At the office, our new IP phones (by a large manufacturer that shall also remain nameless) are nifty. But during our weekly call, my boss mentioned that he’d had trouble dialing my number, because when he paused to double-check my number the system thought he’d stopped dialing and terminated the call. I’d noticed the same thing, and determined to complain to the help desk. First I Googled the manufacturer and the phrase “dial timeout.” Just as I suspected, there were several hits, including the technical documentation, on the manufacturer’s own website. I settled on a troubleshooting article on how to set the interdigit timeout. (The default is ten seconds; they cautioned against setting the value below six seconds; as far as I can tell, our system’s is set to three seconds.)

The odds of finding useful information on the Internet are increasingly good, especially for consumer products. (OK, duh…) Some information, like what I found on the manufacturer’s website, is likely to be accurate; other information, like what my son found on a discussion forum, may or may not be. Technical information? Yes, that too, especially if the manufacturer doesn’t hide it behind a firewall. Can we sit back as product consumers (or stay awake nights worrying as information producers) in the expecation that information on our products is posted somewhere? The trend is running strongly in that direction. But I can think of several reasons why not everything is posted, and why not everything will be:

  • My snowblower is a popular consumer brand, and I am probably one of tens of thousands of owners. A large market generates large interest; it’s not surprising that there are discussion forums on repair. If your product enjoys sales at that level, there are probably user forums discussing it, and you should probably be getting ahead of the curve by moderating them youself! My employer’s product makes money, thank you, but the number of units sold, and the user audience, is orders of magnitude smaller. If I wrote a blog on our product, I might get even fewer hits than I enjoy here. I doubt anyone else has one. [Checks Web—nope, nothing.] Of course, if they paid me to write one, I’d be happy to do it…
  • The IP phone manufacturer doesn’t try to hide its technical documentation (or doesn’t do a good job of it). On the other hand, IP telephony is not exactly national security technology. My employer is much more circumspect about our technology; a former executive had us obscure our manuals for fear competitors would find out what we could do. Even today I would not get far if I suggested making our documentation available on the Web.

I expect there are manufacturers in the world that are thinking of dispensing with their technical communicators and letting the cloud produce their documentation instead. If they sell a hugely popular product, that might happen. But they run the risk of that documentation pointing out that their product sucks. You can’t buy loyalty! But you can rent it…

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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