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I’d Like Some Information with that Information, Please

By Liz Wilson, Posted on October 29, 2020 at 5:16 pm

Liz Wilson

I started using Microsoft Teams daily when I was hired by Synergex back in May. While there were some features of the user interface (UI) that took a bit longer to master, I was able to discern most of what Teams was telling me about the status of my coworkers immediately. I looked at the green dot and intuited its meaning as “Available,” and by a similar process, came to the correct conclusion that red communicates the opposite state.

My general comfort level with user statuses in Teams is due to the design pattern that this UI component follows: the placement of a status icon next to, or partially on top of, the user icon. I’m a millennial, so I was exposed to this pattern early on via AOL Instant Messenger and saw it again in a more sophisticated form when Skype started its ascent to mass popularity during the early aughts.

Design patterns are powerful because they provide users with context. The widgets and components of an application that follows design patterns are immediately imbued with meaning by the user, while a layout that shuns convention risks a discouraging and confusing user experience. For example, the “infinite scroll” design trend, while still used in social media feeds, has fallen out of favor in the context of website landing pages, partially because visitors expect to arrive at a footer and don’t enjoy finding themselves lost in an unorganized (and data-intensive) sea of content.  

Context-Independent Components

There is, however, a limit to what users can understand about your application using background information gleaned from previous experience. To create a comprehensible and easy-to-navigate UI, components should provide enough information about themselves to make sense regardless of the varying expectations and abilities users bring to the table (i.e., the context from which someone is accessing your application). In regard to my earlier anecdote, I made the correct assumption about the green, yellow, and red dots in Teams right away. On the other hand, there was one status icon that meant nothing to me at first, as it resembled a sideways magenta jellyfish. Thankfully, in anticipation of this type of ambiguity, as well as the very real possibility that some Teams users may be color blind1, Microsoft included a description of each status in the tooltip, so by simply hovering over the magenta jellyfish, I learned that a) it was not, in fact, a jellyfish and b) it was the “out of office” symbol. Mystery solved.

It doesn’t take a visual impairment (or cluelessness, in my case) for accessibility issues to arise, just a lack of information about information. Take abbreviations, for example. New employees may not be familiar with the acronyms that populate the tabs and menus of your application. By providing a mechanism for identifying the full meaning of abbreviations and acronyms in the user interface, you’re lowering barriers to accessibility. This strategy is discussed in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and applies to mobile, web-based, and desktop applications, as well as traditional websites. Form validation is another area where a “more is more” approach to information is appropriate. I can’t count the number of times I’ve submitted a form and the only indication I’ve received that something isn’t right is a grayed-out submit button. Often it takes several trial-and-error attempts before I realize that the form wants me to format my date differently or add punctuation to a new password. In this situation, technically speaking, I’m receiving just enough information to have a sense of what’s going on, but not nearly enough to make an informed decision about what the application wants me to do next. Designers and UI developers can inject extra information into each field to guide people towards correct formatting and data types, the result being that users can successfully submit a form regardless of the context they’re working in (vision impairment, device dimensions, etc.). On a related note, individuals who use a mouse to navigate and fill out forms can see where the pointer has landed and enter data accordingly, so to provide a comparable experience to keyboard users, you can highlight form fields with a border as they receive focus. Once again, the WCAG website outlines this technique in greater detail.

There are hundreds of additional scenarios where context-independent components would enhance user experience, so rather than attempting to list them all here, I’ll recommend checking out Microsoft’s Accessibility Insights, an application and browser extension created to help developers make their applications as accessible as possible. The tool is open source, free, and available on Windows, MacOS, and Linux.


[1] According to the National Eye Institute, approximately 1 in 12 men are color blind.


5 Strategies for Creating Educational Content that Customers Will Use

By Heather Sula and Jacklin Garcia, Posted on October 22, 2020 at 3:05 pm

Heather Sula and Jacklin Garcia

The scenario: You and your team of fellow genius software developers have created a great application. It’s been out in the wild with customers using it and loving it, but they have questions and aren’t quite getting what they need from your documentation and release notes, and your support team is always bogged down with the same questions. So how can you educate your customers to help them get the most out of your product?

Talk to Support

As a developer, you have strong ideas about how people should be using your product. However, people are people, and they’re going to take what’s in front of them and do all kinds of things you never expected. That’s where your support team comes in. (Note: If you’re with a small company and you ARE the support team, find a way to keep track of this stuff, if you’re not already.) Support is on the front lines—they’re an infinite well of knowledge when it comes to the ways people are actually using your products and their problem areas. If your support reps are using some sort of case management system (we use Salesforce Service Cloud), they can easily pull reports of bugs reported or questions asked by product or release version to get you the information you need quickly. Plus, if you can convince support that these educational resources mean people will be able to do “self-serve” support and free up more of their time, they’ll be more than happy to get you whatever you need. You can find out how helpful the Synergex support team is here

Get ideas straight from the source

Another avenue for figuring out your customers’ pain points is hearing directly from them, and there are a number of ways to do this. The most direct, of course, is the good old-fashioned direct conversation. Are you or your sales team reaching out to customers with any sort of frequency to see how they’re doing? You’d be surprised what a 15-minute conversation or direct email exchange can uncover. 
You can also create places for people to provide this information directly. Two ways to do this are surveys (some people loooove to give feedback) or a forum where customers can post their thoughts, ideas, and issues with your product. At Synergex, the latter is our Resource Center, and customers use it to air their thoughts and curate their wish list for new product features.

Work with Marketing

Now that you know the “What”—what questions you need to answer and what topics your customers are interested in—you need the “How.” That’s where marketing comes in. If your company has a marketing team, you may see them as the people who sometimes send out emails or edit your website, but marketing can be a valuable resource from the very beginning of this process through the end. They can help you create surveys, advertise your forum, or help create other ways for you to reach out to customers. They may bring a different perspective to help you identify useful areas of focus. They can put their creative powers to use, helping you create and brand your content. And, more importantly, they can help you get your educational product out there (more about that later). Feel free to pick our brains if you have questions.

Make it digestible, accessible, and fun

Sure, you have the dry (though they don’t need to be), dependable resources that come standard with software development: release notes, documentation, etc. But you’re a creature of the internet—you know how short attention spans are, even for detail-oriented, technical people like yourself. Plus, people learn in different ways, AND they need to hear the info multiple times before it sinks in, so providing information about your products in various formats can help accommodate those different learning styles. What you need is content that’s simple and quick to digest. 

Here are a few things we’ve had success with at Synergex:

YouTube videos/tutorials

Videos can be an extremely useful tool when wielded well. They’re a constant resource that your customers can revisit again and again, and they can save you and support from having to answer the same questions over and over and over again by simply linking to a video.

Cheat Sheets

At our company, we provide “cheat sheets” to our customers upon request—visually pleasing, easily readable single- or two-sided documents that contain commonly used statements or shortcuts our customers can use when building their product with our code. Materials like cheat sheets let customers feel like they’re in on a secret (which they are!) and like they’re getting more bang for their buck.

Webinars

Webinars are a great way to promote an idea or product you’d like your customers to know about, while also being a great educational resource for some of the more niche topics your customer may be curious about.

Accessibility

Have all of this information easily findable on your website. It would suck to spend all this time creating content only for people never to find it. We’ve made an effort to move most of our helpful content out into the open, like our Answers and Ideas forums, so you can see it without having to log into the Resource Center. Our KnowledgeBase will be the next component that we move from behind the curtain. Watch for an announcement about this soon. Bonus: If you have more information readily available, it lowers the adoption barrier for potential new customers. People are more likely to pull the trigger on a purchase if they see that you’re engaged and customer oriented with useful, easily accessible information about your product.

Cross-referencing

Remember how we said you need to repeat information multiple times before people retain it? One way to do that is to employ cross-referencing. You can link to your resources from other resources to reinforce your messages. For example, our quarterly Synergy-e-News newsletter links to blog posts and technical articles that we may have only promoted once but want to emphasize. And those tech articles and blog posts often link to our documentation, videos, tutorials, etc. Give your customers every opportunity to find your content by putting it in front of them more than once.

Fun

This stuff does NOT have to be as dry as your documentation (though we’ve been known to sneak in a few surprises there too). Have some fun with your educational materials, be informal, show you’re human. Your customers will have more fun too and potentially retain more.

Let people know about it

This is, again, where you may need to collaborate with your marketing team. They have all kinds of ideas and resources for getting information out to your customers (and potential customers), from emails, to ad campaigns, to social media, to website optimization, to standardized email signatures with links to resources, and more. AND they can make it aesthetically pleasing—never underestimate the appeal of content that looks, well, appealing. Find creative ways to let your customers know about all the great stuff you have for them, and they’ll be happier for it. 

What strategies do you use to educate your customers?

Education: It’s not just for customers

While this post focuses on external resources for customers, internal training and educational materials for employees are important too! Not sure how to start creating internal training materials for your developers or support representatives? Contact your Synergex account manager to learn about setting up a system assessment with our consulting department as a first step – our system assessments provide a documented architectural overview of your application, touching on relevant aspects of your overall business, which you can then turn around and use for your internal onboarding. 

Bottom line: get creative and collaborate. 


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