Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 09:50:03 AM EST
Previously, one of the reasons to chose the products of a large manufacturer was their documentation and support, even if a smaller company might have had a step up on them with innovation. Now, in this "Era of Good Enough", when competition and prices are so fierce and people figure they can fix it themselves or throw it away, few companies can afford the extra support personnel to do such things,
The current 'value add' to a product is "Support By Forum". This has some advantages, especially when the company is new. The hits on the board are within the capacity of the Tech Support Staff to handle, and it takes far less time to handle things online than with a phone call (the immediacy of the disruption, politeness time, let me check time, harried disruption of other's time). It also leaves a trail for others to follow, which in early days would have nicely-honed solutions to well described problems.
So far, so good. <cue audible effects; low freq notes from Jaws, stabbing scene from Psycho, mix into a Phillip Glass hip-hop melange>
Fortunately, equipment and software changes, but unfortunately it leaves those previously described solutions no longer exactly as valid as they first appear. In haste, the hard to find and train support staff will still point to earlier threads as a way to handle the more numerous problems, amplified by more customers going online for solutions.
Even this has devolved to the point where groups have no support staff at all. Perhaps this is in emulation of groups who are developing open source software, who are volunteer engineers developing and fixing bugs and who toss a few support ideas out when people describe problems that pique their interest. Eventually a user who has figured out the system will pick up the ball and answer questions in the forum, since the developers are off to their real jobs, or fixing bugs or pushing the technology forward.
This turns into other users supporting each other, which leads to inside information and half told truths or guesses being amplified to gospel, which of course sticks harder as time passes instead of being deleted or edited when something changes.
The new user is termed a 'newbie' or 'noob' and sneered at for not looking things up, followed by trolling though a dozen threads with contradictory data, old data, wrong data, and simply specious non-sense, peppered with newbies begging to please have an explanation of some nuance that the old-hand passes over by saying "Then simply grab that and put it into the proper folder." Which that? and what folder?
Lately, forum software has developed a way for people to mark the "best answer". A second solution is a wiki which hopefully brings the best answers into a logical format. This at least helps focus the the effort of dragging through swill. But a wiki can go stale as well, and not all best answers get marked...especially since many questions still go unanswered.
Another heartbreak is being told to read a few things, which turn out to be master treatises on the subject. Cricky~! This happened to me twice this week for software tools that I paid money for, specifically so I wouldn't have to become an expert.
This becomes part and parcel with the problems of copyright v the instinct that everything should be free (because, naturally, we are being ripped off), and the disregard that we have for our time.
I spell all this out because I was finally able to get through the aficionado's knee-jerk reactions on a couple forum/boards this week, until a couple of respected writers (in both cases) went off the defensive and wrote that maybe something should be done. The first was toward a lingering unmet promise of the software. The second was toward actually handling requests by new people. To these latter people I wrote the following manifesto:
- The internet is not a manual.
- The forum is an understandable choice for the developer. Everyone wants the developer to keep cranking out, a) new cool things and, b) bug fixes to make the last cool thing work right. But just like paying their bills or managing the company, some time should be spent on documentation by the developer, whether it is checking to see if the wiki is right or refining a manual of basics.
- If a manufacturer or developer decides to let a forum replace a real manual, to be their point of entry into their product, then no question is off limits or too simple.
- Pointing to a thread that answers the question is excellent, and closing off a thread when the question is correctly answered is a good first step. But it is not perfect because there is evolution in the framework and evolution in the specific product (and other associated 3rd party products), and people who have not watched the evolution don't know what is no longer true or how to get to the next step.
- Since no one likes to be wrong, and since there are so many who will make others wrong, people usually don't post a question until they have gotten frustrated with their inability to find an answer. If there is one person with a question, there are likely to be dozens more who don't ask. If there are a few asking, then there is a sever malfunction in getting an answer across.
- There are too many definitions of the word 'it' and 'that' and 'they'. Whenever one of those words are used, the author should be very certain that there can be no confusion of what 'it' is referring to.
- If the authors intention is to communicate a helpful answer, then it is the author's responsibility to figure out how to communicate a correct and complete answer to the person being addressed.
- The internet has the advantage of being able to move with technology, but when the technology moves and it leaves a 1000 bad answers remaining in its trail.
- I participate on other technology forums which also have this same problem. Even a wiki of the best answers cannot keep up with a technology if the developer doesn't want to make the time to keep it right and up to date. And I can attest, as someone who has written or re-written wiki pages, that if you are off doing something else for 6 months, you are almost a newbie coming back in. Have mercy.
- The 3rd tier of people, those coming in after the wave of you aficionados, are still early adopters. Understand and take care of them, or else the 4th wave will swamp you. This will limit growth, and everyone suffers.
- Finally, this is an era which is defined by 'not valuing our time.' We have become our own secretaries and flight reservation agents. These things used to take 5 minutes, and now take 6 times more (allowing for the time to be polite to someone who was providing a service)...yet we think we are so clever because we got such a good deal. The reality is: Googling for answers, looking for pearls among a hundred posts, is a waste of time. We are all swamped in this mud of no respect for our time. We jointly have to figure out how make the best of it. Treat people with respect and give them the answer that would have helped you 6 months ago.
Good luck to us all.