Nik Wallenda crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope

The Great Balancing Act of User Education

Chair makers have it easy. Everyone knows how chairs work. Chairs are able to deliver 100% of their value to a customer as soon as they’re placed in a room. It’s perfectly obvious to people when they might want to use a chair. All the chair maker has to do is figure out how to build a great chair.

If only the same were true for software.

When you build something novel or disruptive—like a new way to send money between friends, or a platform for managing customer relationships—you’ve got a lot of explaining to do. You’ll need to explain the underlying problem to the market. And why your solution is better than the old way. And in which cases your solution is best. And how to use your solution…

We educate people to unlock their value. A person who learns that Netflix lets you stream unlimited movies and TV shows is more likely to become a subscriber. A user who falls in love with House of Cards is more likely to renew year after year.

The problem, however, is that every time you take the opportunity to educate a customer (to unlock more value), you risk interrupting their experience (potentially destroying some value). As the product manager, you must strike a balance between what is best for your users and what is best for your organization.

Let’s look at a concrete example from Sonos: When they launched their Playbar home theater product, they had competing priorities: “time to music” (the duration between wanting music and having it play) vs. account activation. The team had to choose between one of two paths: (1) Users could plug the Playbar directly into their TV with an optical cable and begin listening immediately, or (2) they could be forced to download Sonos’s mobile app and create an account to activate the speaker and download updated firmware and audio tunings. The first path minimizes time to music but lowers the likelihood of new account registration. The second yields a more “complete” experience, but at the cost of customer convenience.

Ultimately, the team chose to optimize for time-t0-music, acknowledging that there were other opportunities in the customer journey to encourage account activation.

This friction between what’s best for customers and what’s best for the business was the focus of our last breakfast discussion, hosted by Drift.

Documentation is a Product

A mature product can have dozens, hundreds, even thousands of features. Do you have to explain how all of them work? Probably not. Like anything else determined by product, it should be properly weighted and prioritized based on urgency and scope.

User education is an opportunity to go a little deeper into the features that didn’t make it into marketing. Some features warrant a mention in the product newsletter, and others are too small to be announced at all.

It’s up to you, the product manager, to decide when and how to introduce features to users.

Knowing how familiar your user is with your product will ultimately help in the prioritization. This is a holistic approach to user education that advocates the connection between customer satisfaction and users’ proficiency in product features.

The right amount of support and training content is a fine balance. Too much content can mean that the product isn’t intuitive enough to use and investing in more support content can reduce the ROI.

Meet the User Where They Are

One of the biggest challenges to user education is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. You can’t just put everything in a public knowledge base and think that users will find it. Like other product marketing initiatives, you must solve for content and distribution.

Farhan Quasem, a training manager at Toast, shared that his customers actually need printed instructions mailed to them. As restaurant employees, they aren’t used to going to the internet to get answers at work. They need a hard copy sitting right next to the POS machine for quick access.

This works for Toast, but it’d be a waste of postage for a business like Society of Grownups, a financial literacy program designed for millennials. Their users are unlikely to pick up a phone and call support, and prefer to solve problems themselves with documentation they find online.

Enabling that kind of user agency improves the satisfaction of the support experience. Requiring users to take action to learn more about the product creates a more inquisitive user that is empowered to explore the product on her own. Liz Gorra explains that they accomplish this with breadcrumbs in the product.

“They need to be placed in a spot where they have enough information that they want to keep going.”

Embedding support functions into the product can help nudge users in the right direction. Info boxes, tooltips, or help text can train people in self-serving behaviors. When InsightSquared redesigned its interface earlier this year, Brian Swartz put this to good use. Information about each report in the product was moved from behind a button to a collapsible side panel. User testing revealed that even though everyone may not read the text, they all knew where to go when they had questions.

Meeting users where they are goes beyond distribution. Even if all of your help docs live in a Help Scout knowledge base, you must acknowledge that users of varying skill levels and product familiarity will be visiting that. Can you give the same answer to a day-one user as a day-one-hundred-and-one user?

And let’s not forget about your internal customers: namely sales and customer support. FAQs and wikis are generally more effective internally, since questions are less likely to be triggered by actual product usage, but by a customer question.

Prioritize for Milestones

User education is largely an indication of how well you understand your users’ behaviors and goals. It’s about knowing what your user wants before she has to say it explicitly, and showing them how to attain it without making it feel like work.

Communicating how to use features is key to making users feel at home.

Every product has milestones—inflection points in the user’s journey that dramatically increase satisfaction, retention, and lifetime value. When prioritizing user education efforts, focus on these milestones. Twitter knows that following people leads to a better experience. Dropbox knows that customers who sync their cloud-managed files with a local machine stick around longer. Their onboarding efforts are subsequently built around these milestones.

User segmentation plays a big role here, especially for B2B products. The person who pays for B2B software may not be the same as its users. In this case, you must decide if you want to optimize for milestones around account renewal or customer satisfaction. If you make time entry software, should you focus on reducing the pain of filling out a time card, or should you make sure the COO can run the utilization reports she needs to run the business?

User education is the connective tissue of user experience. It’s up to the product manager to decide when and how to provide this education, balancing business priorities with customer interests. By treating user education and documentation as a product, meeting customers where they are from a distribution and skill-level standpoint, and prioritizing for key milestones, you can ensure better user adoption and long term product success.