We have all had personal experience of the frustrations of inadequate product support and documentation. So why, when we’re in professional mode, don’t we extrapolate from this experience and ensure that our products are adequately supported?

Developing quality product-support literature is usually only a fraction of the cost of the development of the product itself, and the potential downstream rewards are considerable.

So, what are the consequences of poor supporting literature? A poorly supported product may experience some or all of the following:

• poor sales compared to competitors

• higher product-support costs

• a high incidence of problems for stockists and agents

• poor sales efforts by stockists and agents

• negative word of mouth in the community

• negative media reports and reviews

• negative discussion on forums

The short-term consequences for a product with poor supporting literature may be considerably greater expenses, difficulty in getting the product established and much higher support costs at the manufacturer or distribution point.

The long-term consequences include the loss of sales volume to competitors and a loss of confidence in the product and even the brand responsible for it.

What is product-support literature?

Supporting literature is a broad category of text-based material related to a product and includes product labelling and graphics; user-interface labels and graphics; packaging graphics; instructional information and manuals; warranties and contractual information; software and digital media support information; web-based information; sales literature; and advertising.

All of these things affect a consumer’s confidence in the quality and utility of a product before they buy it and their experience of ownership after purchase.

The level of visual literacy and training needed to design and specify the production of product-support literature for a world market is a highly specialised skill. The average consumer would be unable to design these materials from first principals.

But when asked to order a selection of products, based on their packaging, from highest perceived quality to lowest, or from most expensive to least expensive, most consumers will proceed with confidence.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, they respond to the material qualities, the graphic detail, and the symbols represented in the graphics, based on a lifetime of immersion in product selection.

Supporting literature that is supplied by companies like Sony, Panasonic and Roland sets the expectation level for sales literature, packaging and product-support literature. If your product’s supporting graphics and literature could be mistaken for one of these simply by changing the brand, then you are on the right track.

It’s all about consumer confidence

Supporting literature can be broken up into three groups that relate to consumer confidence through different stages of the buying process: pre-sales (advertising, sales literature and web-based information), at purchase (packaging graphics, product labelling and graphics, and user-interface labels and graphics), and post-purchase (user-interface labels and graphics, instructional information and manuals, warranties and contractual information or relationship literature, software and digital media support information and web-based information).

The role of graphic design in enhancing branding and product acceptance in ‘pre-sales’ and ‘at purchase’ stages is better understood and more widely discussed than the aspects that make up ‘post-purchase’. A consumer’s experience during the first two stages is generally better than post-purchase.

Products from inexperienced sources flag themselves during pre-sales and at purchase by a myriad of graphic decisions: cluttered layouts, bad photography, crude illustrations, poorly controlled typography, low-grade packaging materials and sub-standard printing.

If the product itself exhibits good international standards of design this may offset a consumer’s concern about the low level of presentation. And, unfortunately for design standards, an unbeatable price often means that consumers opt for the cheaper product without heed of the post-purchase problems they may experience.

The main focus of this article is the aspects that affect post-purchase satisfaction. Post-purchase is the area where many products fall down. It is also the area where the consequences of poor performance may not be obvious to a manufacturer until the damage is done. The web has provided manufacturers with new ways of gaining product feedback.

It has been suggested that every manufacturer should regularly Google their brands followed by the word ‘sucks’ (or similar) to check on consumer reaction to their offerings. This works well for major brands and products but not so well for niche products.

Who is responsible?

There is no doubt that the design and development of product-support literature often suffers because of where it sits in both the manufacturing environment and the product-development environment.

In a manufacturing environment the literature is likely to be the responsibility of the marketing or sales department, but most of the information and presentation skills required are likely to be in the product-development department. The quality of communication and cooperation between these two areas has a significant impact on what sort of literature is produced.

In highly technical products (for example, electronic products where the performance specification of the electronic circuit is critical to the buying decision) the problem is exaggerated.

The marketing and sales personnel developing the marketing material and sales story may not have the ability to prepare or edit meaningful information about the product. The engineering department may not have the literacy skills to select and present appropriate information for the market and little interest in attempting to.

This can be seen over and over again in sales literature from niche electronics manufacturers in the form of product descriptions that are inappropriately technical, poorly written and out of touch with the average consumer’s level of understanding.

In a product-design consultancy the product-support literature is unlikely to be part of the brief for product-development. So while consultant industrial designers may have an interest in integrating the design of the support literature with the product, they rarely get the opportunity.

Controlling web information

Product ownership (and manufacturing) has become a lot more complicated in the electronics age. Form has little to do with function, and products contain electronic and software functionality that is way beyond the comfort zone of most consumers.

Consumers need all the help they can get to understand what is being offered, why they should choose it and how it should be used. In addition, the mass production of technology that was previously the realm of expert users means that large customer groups are trying to come to grips with technology in which they have no training.

Word of mouth, which still serves the dissemination of product knowledge and usage, has been supercharged by the Internet. The ability of forums to proliferate misinformation that misleads and alienates customers means it should be a priority for companies to make sure that web information and product support is as comprehensive as possible.

The web also encourages the replication of a company’s information by others on the Internet. The most benign form of this is the reproduction of sales information by a distribution chain.

This illustrates the importance of providing the best possible source information to ensure that the cumulative effect of product literature echoed through hundreds of web sites and quoted in reviews and articles builds a sound story.

Ten tips for successful product-support information

Simply having the best product is rarely enough. You need to let people know you have it and make the experience of ownership pleasurable. Controlling customer confidence at every step in the presentation and information chain is the key to success. The following tips can help:

1 make your product look like a million dollars – make consumers want it

2 get the user interface right – help consumers get the most from your product

3 make your packaging inspire confidence – enhance your product’s prestige

4 tell consumers why your product is worth buying – provide reasons that give you the edge

5 use language consumers can understand – make your technology story accessible

6 make it easy to choose between products – provide consistent, relevant feature comparisons

7 be the primary source of knowledge – your products are better because you know more

8 provide instructions for all knowledge levels – anticipate every difficulty

9 update instructions via your website – profit from feedback

10 control your web resources – make it easy for others to present you well 

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