I came across a tweet this morning which had a link to a couple of great articles by Mike Hughes on user assistance and manuals.

The takeaway for me from these articles was that user manuals have traditionally been written from a product perspective. That is now changing. Many of us simply don’t read the instructions, we stumble through, and if we are moving vaguely forwards we keep on going until we sort out the problem. There’s only so many buttons, it’ll come on sooner or later, right?!

Companies producing user manuals, how to instructions, technical specs, online help are going to have to realise that customers have changed, and the way in which help is and can be provided has changed and is changing. A new help experience is evolving and customers are driving it, we just don’t know it yet.

More often than not (billing queries aside), customers don’t even need to go back to the company they bought a product from to get help anymore. There’s enough of us who have bought the same product, who have experienced the same difficulty, and posted a clip on YouTube or tweeted about it. Go on to YouTube and see how many videos there are showing you how to remove a SIM card from an iPhone. Search ‘iPhone SIM card’: 419! And we aren’t just talking about 30 second videos either.

What companies do know, however, is that the customers of today are far more demanding, perhaps not more demanding, they just simply have the means to be more vocal about it. If something doesn’t work, we receive bad service, or the instructions don’t make sense we can blog or tweet about it. The great ‘advance’ is that we can blog or tweet about it now, while it’s happening, from where it’s happening and more than that, what we say can be read by literally thousands of people, and even more than that they can pass it on and on and on…

If companies are now faced with the rise of a modern day consumer who is brand-agnostic, independent, selfish of how they spend their money and time, and willing to participate (or be a voyeur) in a highly congested constantly ‘on’ information network fed by a plethora of trusted and untrusted sources, how do they provide them with help?

If the starting point for many of us is ‘I never read the instructions, I just stumble through’, where does that leave a company trying to put together a help manual or provide a help experience. Actually, I think it’s a really good starting point for a company as well.

They are at last trying to understand the relationship between the customer and help: what help is actually needed by the customer when the customer actually needs it, as well as how the customer approaches the whole dynamics of help. There’s another layer in there as well, but that can be dealt with another time – emotion. What’s the emotional state of the customer when they need help: excited, anxious, frustrated… This all adds to the overall experience, and perhaps more often than not dictates how we feel about a company when we put the phone down.

What if, when we put together a user manual or provide how to instructions online we approach it from trying to meet a customer’s possible need state at that moment in time? What if we accept that a customer will only dip into a help manual when they want to find out how to do something they don’t know how to, but also accept they’ll want to get it set-up in two minutes or less; what’s the implication of time in that scenario? What if, we start to also use what’s already out there on YouTube, Flickr, blogs, tweets etc? What if we provide more meaningful headings that are specific to certain groups at certain times, such as – Sending pictures of the kids to the grandparents on your cameraphone? I don’t know what any of that might look like, but it already sounds a whole lot more fun and engaging for all of us.

PostIt note for Monday 9am: Make Carphone Warehouse Help tweet of the day more fun and engaging (see that, clever play on tip of the day, get it, tip – tweet. Okay, forget it then. Another note to self – don’t try so hard, customers will see through it! Humour has to come naturally. Further note to self: don’t forget to link to Carphone Warehouse web site, good for natural search, added bonus).

Challenge for Monday: Be fun and engaging in 100 characters or less.