Throwing a Windows 7 launch party – stealth user assistance?

Ironic or unironic, the Windows 7 launch party video has been roundly mocked, for smugness, sentimentality,  pageant diversity, and the paper-thin disguise of humanity it seeks to drape over glib corporate twaddle* It also went viral and reached perhaps a couple million people. Many of the remixes retained the body of the audio, so the actual number of people to receive all or most of its information is hard to estimate. I’m going for “pretty big”.

It’s easy to dismiss something so cringe-making as a cheap marketing gimmick, but what about as user assistance?

Well, it’s not great. Lets get that out of the way. It doesn’t actually show you how to do anything. It isn’t an instructional video, at least, not for solving any problem ever experienced by an actual factual human. But it does tell you some stuff, and a subset of that stuff is potentially useful.

What does that astounding, glittering, fraction of a fraction tell us? It gives some pointers for information finding. There are a few anaemic, self-referential dollops of taxonomy in there too, but the video really and, by its own low standards, naturalistically pushes users at the help. One of the first pieces of concrete advice to trickle out of these gurning mandroids is that a bunch of other resources are available. There are the “host notes” for your very own party (essentially a set of reasonable quality FAQs) there are other more instructional videos, and there’s repeated name dropping of, ending with “Yeah, Help and How To is a really great way to bring it all together.”

So, is this the narcissistic fever dream of some badly confused technical author who thinks people drink water at parties? Not so much. But I like the idea of UA by stealth. The video does a lot to direct people at the other user assistance out there; and if they do go looking, they find something passably usable. It also take the trouble to have a pleasant, almost caricaturedly non-threatening older person tell us that setup is easy and there’s help, just in case.

More interestingly (although they’re not the easiest thing to find now), the launch party video mentions specific tutorials in the same mode. They’re short, and comparably forced in their attempt to be offhand, but they’re much, much better. For example, see burning a CD

What all of these do is sell (perhaps fabricate) a user problem, and then present a solution socially. In a brief, and not magnificently interesting presentation to the Information Design Association a while back, Per Mollerup touched on “social navigation” and wayshowing. The idea more or less being that in a tight spot people navigate by following others, and feel comfortable doing so. They may also – though less often – ask for directions. These Windows 7 videos are not the birth of a new era of social wayshowing for user assistance, but they raise the prospect.

Some of us in the tech comms world might get a bit nervy: it smells like marketing. Frame and sell the problem, then solve it in social, human way. Might this have a future? People like stories, and they like other people, so could delivering UA in this kind of more personal form make it more likely to be accessed? If nothing else it seeds the sense of UA resources as a useful part of the product, rather than a dour CHM, or the ravages of Clippit.

 *It’s a guiding principle in my thinking about content that when a user can detect your internal business structures and processes in your external content, you’ve got a problem. At one point the nice little old lady says “that is one way to flow your party”. Draw your own conclusions.