Every time I get involved in my kids' projects, it never ceases to amaze me how Google has effectively replaced everything from encyclopedias to atlases, from logbooks to calculators for my kids. Other than nostalgia, there is no reason to refer to some dead-tree version of information, when you can get more or less up to the second information on virtually any topic, multi-sourced and validated online.
Working for a product company, the same principles apply. Why would a user refer to a manual, or even a company controlled help, be it on the DVD or a website, when they can dynamically interact with other professionals, compare notes and actually get specific coaching on their specific problem. Indeed it shows a remarkable conceit to assume a user of a company's products would even start on their website versus say Google when seeking help. [Great Infographic on online behaviors] The number of ways tools and products can be used are virtually infinite, there is no way a static, single authority source (i.e. product creator) could ever deliver anything other than part of of the support and learning required to go with their products.
Of course, product companies still have an extremely important role, maybe even more important than before, as the role has expanded to not only providing some base level support and learning, mostly common to all users, but also to curate material generated by experts and/or direct customers to their peers and always steer customers to the best of all this. As product creators we are in effect accountable for what turns up in a google-search, and need to make sure a good answer is always found, whether we answer it ourselves, or increasingly, somebody else does. This is true of virtually any product, from software to cars, from coffee makers to printers. Indeed if we do not have information available and ready online, somebody else almost certainly will.
Just as Encylopedia Britannica has learned, and so we must also recognize in how our customers learn and use our products, that learning and knowledge is not:
- Static - Customers expect information to be current, with new standards adopted and supported.
- Single-source, Single Truth - Customers will seek more than one source of information for important decisions, quite simply, because they can
- Single-Format - Customers no longer compromise on receiving information through available media, but seek it on their preferred media, be it text or video
- Exclusive - Just look at Car maintenance manuals, they retail at $200-300, now they are almost always available for free online
- Standalone - Whether we like it or not, our products are compared side by side with our competitors
The information revolution is changing how customer support and learning must be delivered, and as always, the customer is in the driving seat.