Information, Please

No matter how well you master the fine art of learning, the difficulty associated with using a new tool is directly proportional to the amount of information

No matter how well you master the fine art of learning, the difficulty associated with using a new tool is directly proportional to the amount of information you have about it. Information can be gathered from many places, but the first source that we all turn to is the manufacturer. Some manufacturers provide excellent guidance to help users get started with their products. Two recent examples include the mic- technique summary in the Alesis GT microphones manuals, and the installation information that accompanies Mark of the Unicorn's 2408 hard-disk recording system, which gives clear instructions and well-reproduced photos showing proper installation.

Alas, most such instructional material is not so good, and some provides so little information that it would be funny if it weren't so tragic. Many excel in some areas and fall short in others.

Producing good documentation costs manufacturers money, but doing so ultimately saves them money by cutting down on tech-support calls from users (if the users read the docs!). Furthermore, good documentation increases the popularity of a manufacturer's products by building its image as a Class Outfit.

Here are some ideas on documentation that I wish every manufacturer would consider implementing in order to provide truly useful information to customers.

1. Create owner's manuals that are comprehensive, well written, and well organized. This is basic, folks. Many manuals are incomprehensible or lack explanations of features. There is simply no excuse for this garbled stuff. Manuals should provide plenty of step-by-step procedures for essential operations; numerous graphics, including screen shots for software; a section that's organized by application (recording features, playback features, and so on); and a reference section that's organized by function (for example, by menu and command for software).

2. Compile a good index in the manual. A good index is the most important piece of documentation that a manufacturer can provide in a manual, and yet it is usually the lamest. Even if all else fails in terms of the manual's organization or writing, if it has a good index, you will at least be able to find the information that it contains. When I am in midsession and need to look up information about a feature, I turn to the index. Seven times out of ten it is of no use. Good indexes take a whole lot of work to create. Manufacturers: please, do the work.

3. Include a quick-reference guide. Because no one can memorize everything, having a quick-reference guide can be very helpful. Lexicon sends out a laminated card with its PCM 81/91 processors that shows how to move around in the basic modes. Digidesign, too, has a good quick-reference card for Pro Tools. Every program, digital processor, hard-disk recorder, or other device with some level of complexity needs to have something accompany it that users can grab in midsession to remind themselves about how to access a function.

4. Compose applications notes. The more you can show a customer how useful the product they've bought from you is, the more inclined that person will be to buy from you again. Applications notes are cheap to create, and they can be posted on a Web site. They can also be made available to retailers, who frequently need to read them themselves.

5. Put up a good Web site. A Web site doesn't have to be fancy; it just has to be done well. And a good site offers tremendous marketing potential. Some companies have lots of great background information, links to other sites, applications notes, and so forth. Maintaining a presence on e-mail user-discussion lists is another good way to get the word out about your product.

I'm aware that I'm asking manufacturers to do a lot of work. But I've been around this business for a while now, and in the Final Mix, good information is good product support, good product support is good product support is good marketing, and good marketing is just good business. A