What every business can learn from a Haynes manual

The closing  keynote presentation of TCUK 2010, made by J Haynes, Chairman of the Haynes Publishing Group, contained advice useful not only to those creating manuals but also to any organisation looking to communicate information to others. John went through the 50 year history of Haynes, publishers of the Haynes manuals, and explained the reason for the company’s successes and failures.

“Whatever the subject, all Haynes Manuals are ‘hands on’ and are based on the founding principle on which the first manual was created: we do the work, we take the photographs, we create the notes and we tell the truth about how hard or easy a task is. It is the clarity and honesty of this simple methodology, created to help anyone interested in undertaking a practical challenge, that has made Haynes an iconic brand trusted by millions.”

Haynes manual

He also explained why many professional mechanics choose to use a Haynes manual over the manufacturers’ guides:

  • They are consistent in their structure. As all the manuals are structured in the same way, people know where to look for a particular piece of information.
  • They are consistent in the use of symbols and diagrams. A wiring diagram for a Ford uses the same symbols as the wiring diagram for a Volkswagen.

As there’s no common standard between manufacturers regarding how a manufacturer’s service manual should be designed, it’s difficult  for mechanics to move from one type of car to the next, unless they use a Haynes manual.

This recipe for success – Clarity, Honesty, Findability and Consistency – is surely not only true for car manuals, but also for any business looking to communicate effectively.

Is search dying? Your manual within 140 characters?

Internet Psychologist Graham Jones wrote an article last week, in which he stated, search is dying, and is being replaced by sharing information socially.

“So worried is Microsoft about Google that they haven’t realised that Google is not their real competition any more. It is the likes of Twitter and Ecademy…Google already knows this. Much of their labs work and their adaptations of what they already offer are geared to sharing information socially. They realise that search as we know it is dying. Microsoft is so focused on fighting Google, they haven’t realised they are on the wrong battlefield.”

Let’s assume Graham is correct. Where does this leave online user assistance?

Since Online Help was introduced, technical communicators have provided hypertext links, key word search and an index to help users find information.

Today, there is greater emphasis on key word search (finding stuff via Google), and we’ve seen a few authors add tag clouds too.

So how could online user assistance (“Help”) be shared socially? Is it likely that someone will respond to each question by tweeting a link to a particular page in a Help file?

That’s incredibly labour-intensive. For Support teams to answer queries via Twitter might be less time-intensive than responding to emails, but it may be difficult to provide an answer within 140 characters. Most likely, they could provide to links to places where the question is answered.

We’ve talked about the emergence of “landing pages” in Web based Help (so have Michael Hughes and Matthew Ellison),  and that may be a less intensive way to guide people to the information they need. By this I mean, point people towards say 6 landing pages, from which they can be guided quickly to the information they need.

It may also be difficult for users to pose their questions within the limitations of Twitter.

A more likely scenario, I believe, would be to create Twitter avatars. The fictional characters from “Mad Men” post regular tweets about their imaginary lives. If Don Draper and Peggy Olsen can tweet, then why not create a personas for your customers and let them do the same? Billy the Beginner and Patty the Power user, for example? Their posts could guide customers through the key tasks via a series of daily Twitter posts. 

Of course, this is more than about how to best use Twitter. It’s about social networks, the ideas from the Cluetrain Manifesto and Web 2.0 ideas of syndicating content, collaborating with your user base and aggregating content.

Graham Jones concluded by saying “just concentrate on providing and sharing good material”.  Technical Authors can help the organisation provide good material. What we may all have to work out is how we can share this material in more effective ways.