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How to drive user uptake in a world without a user manual


When no one reads user manuals, how can organisations drive the uptake of new ways of working and the business software that supports this? Kevin Philips explores this dilemma.

25th Nov 2020
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Hands up when you last read the user manual for anything. And not out of any pig-headedness. Because you simply don’t expect to have to, given how easy many online consumer-facing services are to learn and use.

Facebook, Twitter and any other platform that relies on grabbing and maintaining our attention are unlikely to have been as successful if we first had to read a user manual (and then the updated version every time anything is updated, which is often.) You expect to be able to dive in straight away and for the user interface to “teach” you as you go along, or you give up.

The same needs to be true for business software, especially if it fundamentally changes the way things have been done before. This intuitiveness needs to be baked in, not only to make sure your investment in software is not wasted, but also to prevent people reverting back to the old ways of doing things if you are trying to modernise and digitalise your operations.

It’s human nature to resist change, especially when in the short term something seems more difficult than the old way of doing things. This short-term convenience and comfort can overrule our understanding that in the long run we’ll be better off embracing the new paradigm. This can especially be true when people are already feeling out of their depth—non-financial managers needing to navigate financial tasks, for instance. (We all know that colleague who does their calculations offline and the plugs the totals into a spreadsheet, rather than using formulas.)

Humans don’t like change but also won’t read the user manual. It’s something of a catch-22 for driving the uptake of new ways of working, and the software that supports this, in your organisation.

Unfortunately, in too many cases, software developers and other online service providers go too far in the opposite direction (for reasons which are too often due to cutting costs, rather than removing friction from the user experience). They ditch the user manual all together for a supposedly self-help knowledge base, which is actually an endless list of frequently asked questions in a PDF. This is neither contextual nor helpful.

Further, it is often nigh on impossible to phone a real human when you have a time sensitive, yet relatively simple question, that can be quickly and easily resolved in an old-fashioned phone call, allowing you to proceed with your day with minimal disruption. Instead, you get drawn into a protracted experience, as you get channelled through unhelpful FAQs, to an asynchronous chatbot or ticketing system that may get you a reply in a minute, or an hour, or a day.

What’s the happy medium? Truly contextual, just-in-time information delivered in bite-sized chunks, preferably with a video option so the user can see and hear the information when they need it. This can parallel phased implementations of new technologies: giving people the chance to familiarise themselves with a system and what it can do based on what they need today, with updates and enhancements following as required.

This approach also frees up the software provider’s consultants to focus on the 10% of engagements that remain in-person, ultimately giving users the same depth of engagement and support, plus the ability to help themselves effectively. And most importantly, minimising frustration and friction, and so reducing the chance that the user will just do things in the old way.

A knock-on benefit of this approach is that it puts software installations within reach of smaller companies, who previously may not have been able to afford a fixed installation cost. Now, they have the option of a guided self-installation, relying on the vendor for very specific support at a vastly reduced overall cost.

We know the work of changing how things are done usually starts at the top. And leadership buy-in remains critical. But every day, on an ongoing basis, the work is to gain and keep buy-in at the coalface. This can be done by meeting users where they are, truly empowering them to help themselves, and making human beings available to help when it matters. This makes it easier to change than to stay the same, ensures continuous user adoption, and helps nurture true product advocates.

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