There’s been quite a hue and cry this week over Adobe’s decision to shift Creative Suite to a subscription-only business model. Beginning in June, the company’s flagship boxed set of widely used tools like Illustrator and Photoshop will be moved to, and supported in, the cloud.
It’s a bold move, but not a shocking one, as more software vendors see the benefit of pushing their business to the cloud. It’s certainly more cost-effective than shipping CDs and vying for product placement on crowded store shelves, to say nothing of how easy it is to roll out updates or patches.
Interestingly, Adobe’s other big seller, Adobe Technical Communication Suite, isn’t headed to the cloud. Why? The most likely answer is because desktop publishing tools are becoming increasingly obsolete. With its heavy focus on collaborative PDFs, this particular collection of apps doesn’t have much maneuvering room as companies shift away from reliance on PDFs as their primary information delivery system.
Internal document management and online product help manuals are key reasons companies use PDFs. While the former isn’t likely to change anytime soon, the latter is heading the way of the dodo bird because customers simply don’t like PDF support docs.
When it comes to product help, PDFs as an exclusive means of documentation will work against you. You may have the best product or service your corner of the market has ever seen but if all your supports docs are PDFs, you might as well be offering manuals on stone tablets.
Today’s product manuals aren’t really manuals in the traditional sense. They’re collaborative, fluid, current, living databases filled with knowledge. User Manual 2.0, if you will.
Here are five cold, hard truths about PDF product support:
PDFs make customers cry. Here’s a typical usage scenario: Have a product question, head to the company wesbite’s help section. Hope for a quick answer, get directed to a huge PDF instead. Make a sandwich while it downloads. Try searching the document for your question, get 93 hits on your search term. Sigh audibly.
Make a stiff drink, then bravely poke through each response to find a useful answer. Rejoice when answer #89 seems to be what you need. Cry when you discover the PDF hasn’t been updated in two years and the information is wrong. Launch laptop at the wall.
If you want to be responsible for tears and crushed dreams, make sure all your product help docs are PDFs.
A living knowledge base, on the other hand, lets users quickly find the answers they need. Since it’s easy to update and keep current, customers know they’re getting the right answers every time. Software vendors can take product support a step further with in-product contextual help that allows users to access information related to what they see onscreen — without ever leaving your app.
PDFs cost your company money. Static documents are expensive to maintain. Somebody (or several somebodys) need to constantly monitor them for accuracy, make changes as needed, convert and upload documents, and so on. The hours your team spends managing PDFs are far better spent helping customers directly instead of tinkering with static manuals.
A living knowledge base helps maintain itself by continually updating across all channels. It’s a collaborative system that gives customers and support agents the real-time information they need, when they need it. On top of that, you’re not paying team members to constantly update PDFs or losing money when frustrated users jump ship for a company with better customer support.
PDFs look unprofessional. Back when the world was on dial-up, websites were single-page affairs, and hosting space was a million dollars a GB, there weren’t many options for getting product help into the hands of users. Today, there’s simply no reason for companies to overlook technology that makes life easier for customers.
Do you really want to force customers to print out reams of pages at their own expense just to figure out how to use your product? Does it warm your heart to picture the PDFs you worked so hard to assemble shoved in a file in the bowels of someone’s hard drive and forgotten?
PDF product help docs make your company look dated and unprofessional. They send the message that you don’t value your customers’ time or resources. A slick online database filled with loads of documentation that’s easily searchable looks far more professional than an outdated website with huge files to download.
PDFs don’t help users become experts. The entire point of customer support is to help users help themselves, to offer them a buffet of options that assist them in finding answers quickly and efficiently. Done right, a good help strategy turns your users into product experts by giving them multiple access points to useful product documentation.
PDF-based support systems have a number of potential fail points and customers have frustratingly few options if the documents are wrong. Sure, they can call a toll-free number or open a trouble ticket, but those avenues make users more dependent on your support team, not less.
Knowledge-based help systems give users multiple channels for finding help and troubleshooting issues. Customers expect to have content that adapts to who they are and the channel they’re accessing. You can’t do that with a static PDF.
PDFs build walls around your teams. Data silos can’t exist within a living knowledge base that’s continually updated and accessed by everyone in the company. PDFs, on the other hand, are locked data points controlled by tech writers.
To be sure, tech writers are an extremely valuable component of product support, but they shouldn’t be the only source of branded product knowledge. Marketing, Sales, Support, Community Managers, and even ancillary support teams have value to add to your existing content, but they can’t do that if all your help docs are protected PDFs.
Collaborative knowledge bases tear walls instead of reinforcing them. If your own teams can’t use your product help effectively, think how your customers must feel.
Used sparingly, PDFs do have their place on a company website. They’re fine for media kits, press releases, printable maps, or for delivering information that rarely or never changes. They’re a terrible method for managing product support info, however. A real-time knowledge base is the help platform your customers need. It’s the new user manual.
Images: Storyvillegirl, Purpleslog, Elvissa, Cogdogblog, Keith Roper