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Which user's life have you changed today?

Who in your company gets the emails/stories from your users? Too often the good stories are routed to PR/Marketing (the success stories that make for good testimonials) while the rest of us (programmers, customer service, etc.) get all the complaint emails. Yes, we like hearing about how great our product is, especially when we did the work. But it's the stories about how the company/product/service/cause has changed someone's life--that matter to those of us doing the actual work. And sometimes the way a user's life is changed is not at all what we'd expect. Let me tell you a story about how an employee of one company changed the life of a user in a most surprising way...

In January I gave a presentation at CUSEC to software engineering students. After my talk, a young man named Edward Ocampo-Gooding came up and said that he was interested in writing technical books--even more than writing software. A little weird--especially given that this kid (according to others at the conference) was apparently a super high-IQ rocket science type--but OK, I'll bite. But then he told me why he wanted to write tech books, and I nearly fell over...

It all changed for him when he got a product called Swift3D from a little company called Electric Rain. He was so impressed with the product manual--yes, you heard that right, the frickin' manual that comes with the product--that he was inspired. Since it's not every day (or for me, any day in my entire life) that you run into someone who is not just impressed with a company-supplied product manual but actually motivated to potentially change the direction of their career... I HAD to know more. I asked Edward to send me a detailed explanation of exactly what it was he liked so much about that manual.

But that's only half the story.

A few weeks after that event, O'Reilly hosted a four day intensive "author's bootcamp" for everyone who was either signed to write a Head First book or on the verge, plus a few editors--around 20 people. It was several days of training, workshops, writing, storyboarding, etc. So, I decided to invite this kid. I said, "If you can make your way here, we'll put you up and you can be part of the bootcamp. It's an opportunity... we've only done this twice in three years."

Edward showed up, was a wonderful addition to the group, and now it's just a matter of he and the editors figuring out which book he should do first.

So, some guy (Nick Petterssen, who it turns out wasn't even a tech writer) working for a small software company (Electric Rain) cares enough about users to go way beyond what's needed and write a killer, inviting, memorable user manual. As a direct result, an engineering student from Canada will end up as one of the youngest O'Reilly-signed authors. Nick, and Electric Rain, changed the direction of a user's life in a substantial and unexpected way. All because of a manual.

A manual designed to help users kick ass.

(Or as Nick later told me, "Our goal is that the user has to do something cool within 30 minutes.")

In another twist, after Edward told me about the manual, I Googled them only to learn they're located about 100 yards from my favorite running trail in Boulder. One of the most motivating moments for me was when I sat down with the folks of Electric Rain and discovered that--based on the philosophy (and talent) and overwhelming concern for their users--the manual really wasn't anything that special. Just one more natural result of the way this company--and especially the people who are part of it--do things. In fact, Electric Rain is one of the main companies I'm writing about in the book, because they meet so many of the criteria on our checklist for creating passionate users. (Much more on them in another post.)

So, we might be touching or changing our user's lives in ways we cannot imagine. The point is not how their life could change, it's that we are part of making that happen! And it doesn't have to be Change with a capital "C". It could be change with a lowercase "c". If you help me learn more about photography in a way that inspires me to take better photos and develop a passion, you have changed me. If you teach me something I thought was too difficult to learn, you've changed me. If you help me rekindle the joy I once felt for programming, you have changed me. According to psychologists, people report that the times they spend in flow are among the happiest moments of their life. Which means...

If you help me kick ass and spend more time in flow, you have changed me.

How are you changing (lowercase "c") your user's life? How could you? More importantly, do you have a way to find that out? MOST importantly, are you sharing those stories with everyone doing the work and not just PR?

Posted by Kathy on May 2, 2006 | Permalink


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Thank you Kathy for highlighting Electric Rain and their Swift3D user manual! What's funny is that I needed inspiration a few weeks back while working on a user manual and used the exact same source for inspiration - the Swift3D user manual. It's awesome, great fun to read, and you really learn! The very same reasons I've begun reading the "Head First" books as well. :-)

Posted by: Lana | May 2, 2006 3:26:07 PM

Re: 'rekindle the joy I once felt for programming' linking to Ruby on Rails

I had the same experience; I was seriously going to give up programming for good until I discovered Rails (and Ruby).

Now I'm totally obsessed with the language and framework (and having a loads of fun too)! Go team!

(p.s. I couldn't stop giggling when I read the 'tigers are important' thing in Design Patterns. I was on a bus and people were looking at me funny).

Posted by: RyanA | May 2, 2006 7:15:33 PM

Edward really is a passionate user.

I was inspired to learn HTML and CSS by Edward when I met him. I used it for a class project last semester and was addicted. It has given me a new approach to the history I'm studying at university. I've started my summer learning using the Head First book on HTML and CSS. I'm planning to start a thesis project in Public History combined with webdesign next year.

Posted by: Mary Beth | May 2, 2006 11:39:33 PM

Maybe it's just me, but now I'm really curious what was in that manual that made it so inspiring? I've read Kathy's post twice now and she doesn't say specifically what made it so special. The curiousity is killing me ...

Posted by: Ben | May 3, 2006 12:30:45 AM

What an inspiring story and why shouldn't the best brain want to write the books? I have two cousins with brains of this order. One of them is a maths genius, recording unprecedented results at university, the other is a highly regarded world authority on the subject of ornithology. They both decided to go and teach high school. "What a waste," people said. Fie upon that, I say. As long as they are good teachers, the kids will benefit from their exceptional knowledge and skills. Their gain, I reckon. This is passionate teaching of the order of Vicki Davis (http://coolcatteacher.blogspot.com/) - I'll bet she got the same reaction, when she gave up her six figure engineering job to go teaching.

So Edward could be a megabrain engineer, but he's going to focus on teaching the end-user via published media and guiding their experience instead. Lucky end-users!

Also, I'm with Ben - what was it about the manual that so inspired this young man?

Posted by: Karyn Romeis | May 3, 2006 2:23:59 AM

Ben and Kathy R. - you can find out more about Electric Rain online, and they have downloadable PDF manuals online too. Their software is awesome as well.

I've written a few user manuals and tutorials for our software in the past, but thought they had to be like all of the other manuals out there. After reading the Swift3D manual I realized that I could make it entertaining while keeping it informative as well. I hear people actually are reading the last manual I put together! ;-) Not bad, considering it's about yard management...

Posted by: Lana | May 3, 2006 7:14:30 AM

Please keep telling these stories. Please.

Posted by: Brian | May 3, 2006 9:56:36 AM

The technical writer may be passionate about the product, but I find the Swift3D user manual to be wordy. I had to read chapter 2 to find out that chapter 3 is considered a Quick Tour of the product. Why not publish chapter 3 as a separate document?

Posted by: Alan | May 3, 2006 10:26:58 AM

Edward is an unstoppable force. We still wonder how he manages to maintain all of his interests, continue to find new things and have enough passion to go around.

He's also the best drinking buddy I've had. :D

Posted by: Skrud | May 3, 2006 11:19:10 AM

Great post - this is something I've been working on for some time through my company, Whirled Events. We're trying to shift people's frame of mind from looking at gift giving as an obligation, to a form of art. It's a way to express yourself and your relationships, and should be something that's actually enjoyable. Electric Rain is a great example of how this passion can transcend into all aspects of a company - everything that you put out there should inspire people to do something more than just buy it...they have to buy into the idea even more than they buy into the product. Keep up the great work - I am a huge fan!

Posted by: Carolyn Goodwin | May 8, 2006 2:11:44 PM

I'm a tech writer and read the Electric Rain manual some 6 years ago when I worked for another 3D software company. I was impressed with the accessibiilty of the writing, the fun the authors obviously had when writing it, and the passion for their product. I've no doubt I'd still be impressed with it - I just wish I could write as engagingly as them. Another fun manual (well, GUI tooltips anyway) is the stuff from Acoustica, specifically the Acoustica CD/DVD Label Maker (http://www.acoustica.com/). There's not much software that makes me smile - this one did.

Posted by: Rhonda | May 10, 2006 1:04:24 AM

Just two words describe Edward's impact on the training camp—"talcum powder". An amazing force of nature and fun, too. He'll go far!

Posted by: Louise | May 12, 2006 7:51:57 AM

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