Summary of answers: "Getting customer reactions"

Subject: Summary of answers: "Getting customer reactions"
From: Mark Levinson <mark -at- SD -dot- CO -dot- IL>
Date: Mon, 13 Nov 1995 18:35:32 IST

Some time ago I asked about how, if at all, writers obtain customer
reactions-- whether by visits in particular, or by any other methods.

Thanks very much to the writers and managers who responded. They were
a couple of dozen in all. Everyone who did receive customer reactions
found them valuable. In a few cases, the distribution of reply
cards was characterized as sometimes futile; in all other cases,
everyone who reported on a method seemed happy with the results.

Scientific-style environments, with one-way mirrors and all, were used by
some companies for documentation usability as part of a larger usability
program. I'm told that Cray, IDS, and Novell use them; and one writer
commented: "Microsoft seems to do things in this direction. Some journals
do it, but simply to test usability." HP is said also to have usability labs.

Less extreme methods (and the companies that used them) included--

- Querying visiting users at the company's own user conferences
(a Fortune 200 company)
(an AT&T subsidiary, which provides "some little goodie reward" for
filling out a form, and also conducts interviews)
(a third software company)
(a manufacturer of computer systems for the vending industry)
(an institute funded by the forest industry)

- Visiting the customer for feedback on the documentation
(the AT&T subsidiary)
(an Irish company with four full-time and two part-time writers)
(a Hewlett-Packard division)
(a medical diagnostics company employing 3000 in all)
(major defense contractors including Lockheed, GE Aircraft Engines,
Northrop, Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, Pratt & Whitney, General Dynamics)
(Cognos, a software company with about 1000 employees)

- Observing/assisting at customer training
(a company of >100 employees serving the newspaper industry)

- Observing how the system is installed/used
(the company serving the newspaper industry)
(the AT&T subsidiary)
(the Fortune 200 company, which sends writers to Beta sites)

- Observing customer service calls
(a manufacturer of medical electronics systems)

- Occasionally sitting at the customer-support phone

- Visiting the customer in advance, to assess documentation & interface needs
(Computer Processes Unlimited, a software company with 50 employees)

- Comment forms in the manuals
(the AT&T subsidiary)
(the Hewlett-Packard division)
(the medical diagnostics company)
(an x-ray imaging system manufacturer)

Comments about the benefits of visits included--

"It's fun to watch how differently each person approaches a new product."

"They [the visits] were the single most useful experience of my writing
days. Believe me, when you've written a procedure, there's nothing like
seeing the users tear into it out in the field."

"Obviously, the better we know our audience, the better we can help them.
By no means can we depend on Developers/Engineers to know the user, nor
can we depend upon Sales for information. Gotta dig it out."

"In the eighties I wrote service manuals for medical electronics. I
managed to go out to some hospitals with a service technician. It surely
influenced my view on my manuals."

"I visited customer sites many times for many companies I worked for.
In 100% of the cases, the experience was invaluable. I got to see how
the product was really used, and I got to meet typical users. (...)
I think the customers really enjoyed the experience too. They felt special
and felt that the company was truly dedicated-- in all ways-- to making
sure that their needs were met. (...) I think they're more likely to
voice feedback now regarding documentation because of the experience."

The response from Ireland bears quoting at length:

In March this year I visited a user site in the UK with a colleague
from development. We came up with a number of goals for the visit:

* learn about our users (we designed a survey to ask them leading
questions about learning style, levels of education, amount of
experience, how much time they had spent working with our product,
what other similar other products had they used, etc.)

* learn about the users' work environment (lighting, noise, space,
whether they found it easy to work in)

* learn about their levels of satisfaction with our software and with
our documentation

* address some of the technical problems they were having.

This multi-goal approach was an excellent justification for the
visit. We learned a lot from a two-day visit. We got a good return
from the survey since we were there in person to encourage them to
fill it out. We also interviewed about 10 or 12 users. On our return
we compiled the results of the survey and the interviews, and included
these in a report on the visit. We have found the information very
useful in the design of the product and of the documentation and
training. We also passed a copy of the report back to management at
the site (without the actual responses as we had promised the
respondents that it was an anonymous survey).

An added benefit of the visit was an establishing of a better
relationship with the customers at that site.

I hope to send more of our writers on visits of this kind. The
combination of Pubs and Development is a good one.

Thanks once more to all, and may we all meet some day and swap
travel photos.

||- Mark L. Levinson, mark -at- sd -dot- co -dot- il -- Box 5780, 46157 Herzlia, Israel -||
|| A Rabin condolence page can be found at ||

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