Hey user guides, where have you been?

I remember the disappearance of user guides. It was like one of those alt-reality sci-fi stories. There was no great announcement, they just stopped turning up and while at first everyone found it a bit disconcerting, they got on with life and at some point it was like decent guides had never been there.

This was most obvious in the complex products, ironic really, given they are the ones that people needed most help with. Things grew in the spaces left behind by the manufacturers, David Pogue wrote the ‘Missing manuals’ series and in general people got used to finding help in other places.

Where user guides persisted they were a shadow of their former selves, a tick box exercise of meeting customer expectations or regulatory requirements. Normally produced on behalf of the consumer brand by whichever factory was making their product in the Far East.

Customers didn’t need a guide for their toaster or their kettle, physical guides for physical products became something that everyone ignored. The rejection by customers of guides that told them what they already knew was used as a justification not to provide guides that would tell them things they didn’t know, things they really needed to know.

I probably paid closer attention to this decline than most.

Creating bespoke user guides used to be a big part of our work, helping technology companies ensure their customers got the best out of the products that they bought. We helped mobile operators educate users on WAP, then apps, picture messaging and the early smartphones. We helped electronics brands ensure customers got the most out of everything from toasted sandwich makers to home cinema systems and digital SLRs.

Until the price of consumer electronics dropped through the floor.

Bespoke user literature became too expensive to justify, major brands tried taking off-the-shelf instructions to go with off-the-shelf products and found that it didn’t hurt too much. After that, in a race to deliver the most features at the lowest cost, it became a no brainer to cut the ‘expense’ of guide creation. At the point at which a kettle could be bought in Woolworths for £2 consumer electronics had officially become disposable. Even for high price items no one was willing to pay to make guides more valuable to customers who were replacing their TVs, phones and audio equipment every couple of years.

There were some hiccups along the way, UK retailers discovered that No Fault Found returns (NFF) on new technologies were staggeringly high, commonly over 70% for products like Set Top Boxes when they first came in. People didn’t really understand how they worked, their expectations were out of line with reality and they brought them back in their thousands.

For retailers who were buying direct from manufacturers this had an added sting, products that weren’t faulty couldn’t be returned to the manufacturer, piles of returned electronics represented significant losses and for a while we worked to help high street names with those issues.

Our work with one major retailer reduced NFF returns by over 23%, across the range the savings where huge. But in the end technical teams had budgetary responsibility for guides, and they weren’t the ones to get the benefit. As customers became used to the new tech and alternate support channels became prevalent though YouTube and online forums, the issues receded in importance again. Operational costs, always under constant pressure found easy wins in reducing the budget for instruction manuals.

By the time we hit the mid 2000’s the race was all about the features. Consumer electronics were being turned over at an ever higher rate, customers trading in their kit to get the latest model. Brands shifted to the new reality, promoting the latest, most advanced features and functions drove sales, user literature and customer support was just a cost.

It’s a cost that’s growing, both direct and indirect.

Customer expectations on brands are now very high, they expect tech to work perfectly, intuitively, without effort. They expect quick resolutions to issues, they demand rapid responses across social channels and they are very quick to share the negative experiences they have.

Creating a positive experience for customers is the only place that a brand can establish durable competitive advantage. With physical products, customised, thoughtful and genuinely useful user guides are having a resurgence. Brands recognise that it is no longer acceptable to put the responsibility for working out how to get the most out of a product on the customer, they have to help them.
The format of those guides may have changed, video, online, on device, sit alongside physical print and they operate in a more complex environment where the brands authority is challenged by support from unaffiliated third parties online. But for those investing, getting the customer support right is having a major impact on direct costs, customer satisfaction and evangelism.

The return of user guides comes along with some big shifts in the nature of consumer products.

Almost all products now exist as part of a wider ecosystem including some digital component or service. Things are more complex but customers still expect them to be simple, intuitive, easy to use. What works well sets the context for everything else, the bar is set unbelievably high.

But the biggest shift is the recognition across organisations that the quality of the customer experience is the most reliable indicator of success. The race for customers is no longer about features and functions, it’s about experience and relationships. Brands who want to establish better relationships with their customers are talking to them more, and investing in doing so at the points where it really matters, like the golden moment of unboxing and the golden hour of first use.

We know that because we are working with some of those brands; making a difference to their business, their customer and their results.

User guides, it’s nice to see you again.


Jay Nicholl

Strategy Director


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