[Guest Blog] How to help schools avoid common mistakes with your product
The next time you’re looking for a book on Amazon, spend some time perusing the one-star reviews. Chances are you will come across statements such as “I thought the book was about a different subject, so although it’s well-written I’m only giving it one star.”
Wait a second! Didn’t you read the description? Didn’t you use the ‘Look inside’ feature to get an idea of the book’s contents? Why have you given the author a lousy review, when your disappointing experience was all your own fault?
Unfortunately, many people who make errors like that don’t bother to write reviews, they just spread poor word of mouth instead. When someone asks them, “What do you think of the Marks-R-Us assessment application?”, they reply “Well, I had a bad experience; I had to ask for a refund.” They forget to mention that they really wanted an e-safety product instead.
Clearly, there’s not much you can do about specific situations like that, but you can at least attempt to minimise the likelihood of their arising in the first place. Therefore it’s a good idea to satisfy yourself that your marketing materials make clear what your product actually does, what problem it’s intended to solve. That’s half the battle. The other half is helping customers get the most out of your product. One way you can do that is to help them avoid common mistakes, and show them how to use the product to its best advantage. How can you do all that?
Let’s assume your product is an assessment program with automated marking. Teachers will no doubt want to do the following:
- Create a set of questions and corresponding answers.
- Email the results to the pupils.
- Put the marks into the MIS system.
You might want to have a gap between 2 and 3, in order to give the pupils time to go over their answers and amend them in the light of feedback. You might also want pupils in different bands of marks to be placed in different virtual groups, for the purposes of determining what work to give them next.
You can see that this is already becoming a bit complicated – and we haven’t even mentioned reports or parents yet.
This is where a ‘walk-through’ would come in handy. It might take the form of a video, say, although for ease of reference I would suggest a flowchart. It could be fitted into a single A4 page pdf for the teacher to print out, or an (interactive?) online one. One extra advantage of having a flowchart is that the user can see all the main functions at a glance – functions that she may not have realised were there or had forgotten about.
If your product is software, why not produce a web page or pdf sheet showing all the shortcuts, including instructions for creating your own if that is possible? Anything that saves users time and frustration would be welcomed by them.
This kind of idea is not confined to software, of course. If there’s a huge amount of documentation for your product, or the documentation is the product, at least make it easy to navigate. One of the strengths of some books is that before the minutely detailed table of contents they have a section called ‘Contents at a glance’. For instance, one of the books on my shelves is Microsoft Access 2019 Bible (it’s not exactly a page-turner but it’s good for reference). The table of contents is just under 23 pages long! However, just before that is a two-page ‘Contents at a glance’, which enables me to go straight away to the part of the book I need to consult.
Provide video how-to’s
I think when it comes to video instruction, the rule is: the shorter the better. If, for instance, I want to know how to add an extra field in a database, I just want to spend a few minutes watching a demonstration or an animation. What I do not want is to waste a long time trying to find the bit in the 40-minute video that answers my specific question at that time.
So far, so positive. But at some point, something is bound to go wrong, and the user will want to fix it quickly. Consider doing the following.
Don’t just use the Help menu
The Help menu is definitely a good thing, but it shouldn’t be the only thing. If, for example, the problem is that the program keeps crashing or hanging up, having the solution in Help is useless. So have a ‘common issues’ page on your website too.
Fix the issues
At the risk of stating the obvious, if a problem is common then it’s probably a good idea to fix it rather than just have a solution to it!
Have a user forum
If you have the capacity to run and moderate a user forum that is certainly a useful idea. It helps users to find out from others how to solve a problem, which therefore reduces the pressure on your staff. Another thing it does, of course, is bring issues to your attention that you otherwise might not have known about.
List easy solutions first
Teachers are busy and many aren’t fantastically confident when it comes to technology. Therefore, on your solutions page, list the suggestions in order of what we might call low-stakes to high-stakes. For example, a low-stakes solution is to clear the cache. A high stakes answer might be to run a disk cleaning utility that requires you to do a full system backup first in case it deletes essential files. In between those two extremes might be a range of suggestions of varying difficulty and scariness. (It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that whether a solution is low stakes or high stakes might depend on context. Rebooting your own laptop is probably low stakes, especially if you’ve been saving stuff as you go along. Rebooting the school server in the middle of the school day is very much high stakes.)
To cut a long story short, your documentation needs to:
- Tell the (would-be) user what your product does.
- Explain how to use it in the most efficient way.
- Explain how to get the most benefit from it.
- Help people get back on track when something goes wrong.
You may not be able to prevent unforeseen glitches from arising, but you can turn an unfortunate situation into an opportunity to demonstrate how customer-focused you are.