Monday, November 16, 2009

Dip Management

Make sure the chip is thick enough to scoop the density of...oh wait, it's not about that kind of dip. Today's blog is about managing technology acceptance and the negative dip in user performance and proficiency that occurs when the user must learn a new tool or new technology.

The figure below illustrates a phenomenon known as the "j-curve." Dotted line "x" represents the user's current state of proficiency using the current tool or technology. Dotted line "y" represents the user's potential new level of proficiency with a tool or technology innovation. Hooray, look at how much better the innovation will make us!!!

Uh, what's that nasty little dip at the beginning all about? What's up with that? Well, that's the reality of the j-curve; it reminds us that we go from one moment being very proficient with our current tool or technology to being pretty stupid with the new one. This is why I hate doing upgrades, I go from smart to stupid in the time it takes to click "Install Now." They might as well relabel the button:

How bad the dip gets is indicated by the distance labeled "A." I am working on a current project where one of the managers named that area "the valley of suck." How much better the new proficiency (or user experience will be) is indicated by the distance labeled "B."

So the basic question every user ends up answering is Was the improvement labeled "B" worth the pain and humiliation labeled "A?"


I recently sat through a presentation where Tom Gorski, STC Director of Communication, demonstrated what the new electronic version of our magazine Intercom would be like.

My first reaction was "bright and shiny, cool" but then very quickly as I watched Tom click this, mouse over that, and a variety of other user interactions, I felt a dip in my enthusiasm--along the lines of "Gee, ten seconds ago I knew how to read a magazine, seems I don't any more."

Then I began to realize that with this new kind of magazine came a new level of power, due to new ways to navigate, search, drill down, and email snippets to friends that did not come with Intercom as I know it and love it today. I also saw how advertisers could provide links in their ads. Hmm, double thrill here. As a board member my first reaction was, great! added value to advertisers (more STC revenue), and as a reader I was equally pleased. As with most professionals, I find vendors to be a major channel of professional education. That's why the Expo hall has become such a mainstay of professional conferences. Being able to click over to their web sites would be a positive for me.

In short, as I better understood my potential new value distance of "B," I became more willing to tolerate "A."


A couple of lessons come out of all of this:
  • As technical communicators, we need to help users understand the improvement represented by distance "B." This means overviews of upgrades and new technologies must be benefit-oriented and situated in user contexts. Help make that formula B/A more acceptable by making B bigger.
  • As technical communicators, we need to minimize the pain represented by distance "A" through good user assistance. Once again, make B/A more tolerable but this time by making A smaller.
And as users ourselves, we should try to understand better what the new proficiency level "y" is and accept that some effort is required to get there. As I think back on all of the innovations I have opposed, most of them I would now fight for to the death if you tried to take them away from me.

OK, Twitter I would only fight for to near-exhaustion, but you get the point.


Larry said...

I can relate to this, Mike: I'm trying to get used to Word 2007 after using the old Word UI for about a hundred years. The payoff is probably going to be worth it, but right now I feel like a total dip.

Seems like Microsoft could've made the valley a little bit easier to navigate.

Anonymous said...

I just want to remind members that STC will be "going green" with all of its publications in 2010.

Intercom will reside on our website as an enhanced PDF. It will use page-turning technology that loads very quickly, is easy to use, and I think will be enjoyed by our members. The magazine will also be posted as a web publication in a content management system and the articles stored on a database. Both versions will be completely searchable.

Technical Communication, our quarterly journal, will also become a web publication beginning with the February issue.

More details will be announced with the first issue of each.

Tom Gorski, CAE
STC Dir of Communication & Marketing

Steve Jong said...

True that 8^)

It's a valuable experience to be forced to learn a new tool. The instant you step into that mode, you become a dip yourself--er, you fall into the dip. Concentrate on that feeling of momentary confusion and impotence: it's what your audience feels as they use your document! For a technical communicator, you should always strive to retain that feeling.

By the way, what you say is also true for learning any physical skill. I used to play and teach volleyball (at a company-league level), and trying to learn and then apply new playing skills rendered good players clunky, and me into a statue. Only when you can apply the skill unconsciously does your play improve from they way you used to do it.