Software User Feedback: Seeing outside of the technical writer’s cube

jsw_fish_2013

Jay Wisnosky – Technical Writer

Rock Island Arsenal is on the Mississippi River between the cities of Rock Island, IL and Davenport, IA.  It was first established as a government site in 1816, served as a Civil War prison camp to over 12,000 Confederate prisoners, and now provides manufacturing, logistics and base support for the Armed Forces.

From 15 January through 18 January 2013, Rock Island Arsenal was the training location for ProModel’s Decision Support Tool – Sourcing Module (DST-SM), with the focus trainees being a group from the United States Army Materiel Command (AMC). AMC is the primary provider of materiel to the United States Army. DST-SM is a web-based software application developed by ProModel and designed to assist AMC and other logisticians in the Army to plan the best possible decisions for materiel distribution across the world. As the technical documentation specialist for DST-SM, it is a collaboration with which I am very proud to be associated, so I welcomed the opportunity to attend these training sessions.

It’s not every day that I get the opportunity to interact with the customers of one of our products. If you are a technical writer, you know that much of the interaction and feedback from customers comes filtered through your company’s support team, consultants or other subject matter experts. It sometimes takes a journalist’s tenacity, a quality assurance analyst’s patience, and a politician’s handshake to get information about the technical details of your product. The end result is typically a user manual, which if done well, is quietly referenced and met with very little acclaim.

So on the first day of training at Rock Island Arsenal, I sat as a quiet observer in the back of the training room with notepad in hand, ready for class to begin. By 8:30 a.m., a blend of enlisted soldier and civilian trainees had taken their places behind secure computer monitors. The DST-SM trainer introduced the guests, a mixture of contractors and ProModel employees, to the classroom.

When he introduced me, I felt a rush of fear and pride swell in my chest. He stated my name and title and then added a note, informing the class that I was the author of the previous bound copy of the user manual that was distributed to many of them with the summer release of DST-SM. He added that with this new release the user manual was now online as a new feature and view-able at any given moment from the Help option in the main menu. I felt their staring eyes turn in my direction for a moment, before the trainer continued to his first segment of the session.

Whatever fear of scrutiny I had slowly disappeared as I watched several students reference the online help throughout the course of the training session.  In addition, the trainees regularly turned to me to ask questions about a certain function or screen. Their questions ranged from process-related questions to inquiries about the tool’s usability and performance. Though I couldn’t explain to them how to perform their job, I felt confident helping the trainees navigate the application.  I saw new users of the tool gain confidence and experienced users pick up on the new features with relative ease.

Perhaps one the most beneficial aspects to being a technical writer in the presence of users during a training session was hearing their suggestions, concerns and obstacles. I took this unique chance to interact with the AMC trainees as a golden opportunity to absorb as much as I possibly could about the usability of DST-SM, as well as the effectiveness of my help documentation. Often, a major oversight in developing, testing, and documenting any application is how close we grow to our own process and application. However, through the fresh eyes of a new user, using the tool in a manner familiar to their specific job, you get to see where gaps in the documentation exist and where room for usability can improve. So as we were helping them do their jobs, they were helping us do ours. As the morning progressed, I saw the many hours of hard work by DST-SM developers, product managers, program directors, and testers, finally coming to fruition.

I considered the experience both gratifying and inspiring. The AMC trainees used the help in accordance with the trainer’s instructions and in conjunction with the practical exercises at the end of each session.

The inspiring part is about moving forward with an added perspective and incentive. There’s no doubt having that kind of experience will lend to a stronger, more useful product on the page and in the application. Observing how investments in money, time, and effort are manifest in real world scenarios outside the walls of my cubicle is something that every technical writer imagines, but rarely gets a chance to witness.

2 thoughts on “Software User Feedback: Seeing outside of the technical writer’s cube

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s