The future of tech comm: Machines that teach you how to use them

Our devices are getting smarter. Shouldn't our documentation do the same?

One of the greatest problems manufacturers face is teaching consumers how to use their products. As I mentioned in a previous post, 95 percent of devices returned to stores actually work. That's a serious pain point and expense for manufacturers.

Smart phones, tablets, and other computer-like devices are naturally moving in the direction of simple, digital instructions for setup.

For example, I recently purchased a Kindle tablet for my family. The device guided me through the setup process one step at a time. It was never overwhelming. The bridge between me and the gadget was ever prominent; I wasn't faced with an impartial device and a completely separate and intimidating manual.

Setting up the Kindle was actually enjoyable. At no point did I question my ability to complete the task.

As the Internet of Things becomes a reality, producers of consumer goods can leverage technical writing and cheap digital circuitry to assist consumers in using their products effectively. Those same devices will be able to share data with manufacturers to indicate when help is needed. And this won't be limited to devices that are traditionally digital.

Automobiles are a great example. Modern cars and trucks have onboard displays that can tell you all kinds of things about the status of your vehicle. These displays will remind you when it is time to check your oil, track mileage for a trip, and report on your fuel efficiency. Your grandfather's automobile didn't do this; such features simply weren't necessary for the machine to perform its primary function - moving you down the highway.

As computer chips make their way into more and more devices, technical writers can provide smart documentation that holds the hand of the consumer as they work through complicated setup tasks. And we'll need to document those tasks differently than we have in the past.

We'll be leveraging what innovation and design consultant Daniel Ostrower refers to as Integral Reality. Our rapidly expanding virtual reality will entrench itself within physical reality, and technical writers will sit comfortably at their intersection, taking advantage of the junction.

Soon, most devices will be able to reap the benefits of computer circuitry. These circuits will be hidden within the design of everyday things, so that your flower pots will still look beautiful and natural in addition to tracking moisture levels.

Your future lawnmower could have an independently powered instruction panel that guides you through the setup process. That panel could be state-aware, so that it could detect whether the battery has been connected, whether the leaf catcher is properly attached, or whether there's fuel in the tank.

Instructional panels of this sort could be made from relatively inexpensive components; low resolution displays and sound chips are common enough in inexpensive devices. I've seen them implemented in Happy Meal toys from McDonald's that cost next to nothing.

That doesn't mean expense is a non-issue; electronic components aren't free. However, when manufacturers are facing such high product return rates, delivering instructions in such a manner could boost the success rate for new customers, resulting in fewer returns. Smart instructions could pay for themselves.

Consumers may be more willing to listen to a friendly voice guide them through a complicated process than to read an intimidating instruction manual. Such guidance would expose instructions one step at a time, so that consumers aren't confronted with the overwhelming entirety of the process.

Your lawnmower, blender, or dishwasher could talk you through the process of cutting your lawn, making smoothies, or cleaning your coffee mugs. Like an air traffic controller, they could calmly help you reach your intended destination.

The real power of instructions delivered in such a manner is that they turn relatively complicated tasks into manageable steps, hiding the complexity. Each step is presented only when it is truly necessary, and there is no confusion about context. Instructions are tightly integrated with the current state of the device.

As technical writers, we'll need to adjust our thinking and skills accordingly. Context will become more significant. Delivery will rely on emerging technologies, and we'll need to build even stronger relationships with engineers and developers.

No longer will Support reps need to ask silly questions like "Did you plug it in?" Those will be the first words consumers hear when they open the packaging.

Instead, reps can focus their time and energy on more critical calls where devices are actually failing to perform as expected.

Such integration between the digital world and the tangible world changes the game for technical writers. The world around us is becoming smarter. And we'll need to adjust accordingly.

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