Keys to Being a Trusted Source of Information
Discussion has gone on out there in the blogosphere about how free information is competing with the content technical communicators are paid to produce. We’re being urged to make our information easily accessible and quickly found in search engine results so that Joe Schmoe’s tips and tricks blog doesn’t get all the hits. You don’t want your employer wondering why he pays you to create documentation when Joe Schmoe does it for free and gets more traffic.
But what if you document applications or other products to be used internally? This is the situation I find myself in with the majority of projects I work on. I have an internal audience, and they have plenty of work to do. The likelihood isn’t high that any of them will create an internal SharePoint site with daily or weekly tips for other employees.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, I think you’re fortunate. You can spend your time thinking about something other than search engine optimization. So I have to admit that this particular conversation doesn’t apply to me directly at this time.
The bottom line of this problem, though, applies, and that is the issue of being the trusted, authoritative source. These days, having a logo doesn’t always constitute authority. As far as information on the Web goes, trust is what lends authority.
So the issue of building trust with the audience is core to technical communication. If the user doesn’t trust your instruction, it’s worthless—no matter how well researched, thought out, and reviewed it is and how much time, effort, or problems it will save.
How do we earn the user’s trust?
One study, this one about ten years old, looked at people’s perceived credibility of websites and has relevance to technical communication. The researchers studied the following aspects of trust:
- A perception that real people are the source of the information
- Ease of use, and information is arranged in a way that makes sense
- The information source’s expertise (the source is knowledgeable, experienced, competent)
- The source’s trustworthiness (the source is well-intentioned, truthful, unbiased)
- The experience is tailored to user preferences and needs
- The site avoids commercialism
- The information isn’t amateurish; it lacks errors
One blogger quotes research indicating people don’t trust bloggers. But an insightful commenter about this said:
I think that you are confusing two categories. Of course people don’t trust a generic category called ‘bloggers’ [sic] But they do trust people they ‘know’, and in these days of social networking ‘knowing’ someone may mean you have never met them in real life. But if a relationship of trust & authenticity has been developed between you & them, then they could trust a blogger.
I agree. The first commenter said:
Contrary to what you may imply, you are trusted by many of your readers. You’ve earned this trust by being transparent, by being consistent, by slowly building a reputation, and by the multiple channels in which someone can learn about you. For example, I think an important aspect of Twitter is that it helps establish trust – it often provides a different, less formal, side to a person.
(Note that due to the fact there are 119 comments on that post, I didn’t go farther than maybe a dozen comments. But just these two provided food for thought.)
Demonstrating that I’m a real person is one of the common themes between these two. This is where part of the appeal of Web 2.0 technologies for technical communicators comes from, I think. Often, the technical communicator isn’t visible. We’re kept in the back row and at the end of the process. If our audience thinks about us, they likely see us as just another part of the team that develops the product. We’re not their friends—we’re one of the people trying to make money off of them. We’re hiding inside the big office building or within the business park and don’t know them. But Joe Schmoe knows them. They’re him. He bought the product, figured out some best practices, and posted them on his blog as he went.
On Joe Schmoe’s blog, however, readers can post comments and ask follow-up questions, and Joe can answer. People want an actual person to talk to.
So one key is to make documentation that’s friendly. I don’t mean user-friendly here; I’m talking just plain friendly. Personable.
This is probably what Microsoft was going for with Clippy and his friends, the dog and wizard. But those characters are just that: characters. They’re not real, so people can’t really identify with them and trust them. Can you identify with a paper clip with buggy eyes? They fall short of being real.
Transparency and authenticity. Consistency. These things encourage trust. Since this post is getting long, I’ll discuss how these apply to us in my next posts.