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Documentation, Out of the Virtual Box

Once upon a time, both hardware and software alike showed up at your local gadget store in a real-life, tangible box. Like a kid on her birthday, you would take your new toy home and wait with barely-contained excitement until you could crack open the shiny packaging. Those precious moments–or hours–between when you took your new toy home and your first success with the product are significant enough that needed a term to describe them. The first-time user experience came to be known as the Out of Box Experience, or OOBE.

OK, so there are plenty of tech products out there that still follow the model of an honest-to-goodness shrink-wrapped box. However, most software doesn’t.  What does it mean to have an out of box experience when there isn’t a box? Even if there’s no physical box or professionally printed user manual, those first few minutes or hours can still make or break the customer’s relationship with your product. We can still talk about the OOBE because it’s still useful to have a term to describe this critical moment. The experience has changed, but the funny name stuck.

Every part of the product impacts the user’s first impression. All of the components are important. So what role does product documentation play? After all, isn’t documentation for later on, after the user is really stuck in the mud and could use some help? It’s true that, especially for more complicated software, technical documentation is a long-term asset designed to help the customer in times of need. However, docs can play a number of roles in creating a first impression of the product.

Docs when you want them, not when you don’t

Traditional user manuals were printed as actual books and lurked in the bottom of the software box, or perched on top of the pile to greet new users with safety advisories and multilingual welcome letters. Of course this documentation was part of the OOBE; the user could see it right there in the open box (mostly). However, that access could be a double-edged sword. When you’re opening up a pricey new piece of software, it can be intimidating to feel the weight of a tome of printed docs. On the other hand, at least you definitely know where to find the documentation when you do need help (again, mostly). Fortunately, freeing ourselves from printed docs means we can have our cake and eat it too. First-time users don’t need to see how many pages of documentation you do or don’t have, unless they want to (and some will). Make sure that all of your documentation is findable, but curate audience-appropriate getting started content to make sure the user’s first experience goes smoothly.

Understand your user’s goals

The key to helping the user have a positive first experience with your product is to understand the user’s goals. What does a first success look like to your user? If you don’t know, you’re going to have a problem (probably not just with the OOBE, but that’s a whole different blog post). This is true for the whole product, not just for documentation, but choosing the right words can go a long way toward helping your users be successful. This can take the form of careful UI text, context-sensitive help, getting started guides, or traditional technical docs. The key is to make sure that users quickly find exactly what they need, without having to wade through what they don’t.

The out of box experience matters. A great first-time user experience can save money in customer support calls and create happy, loyal customers who are more inclined to forgive any of your product’s later transgressions (bugs happen to everyone eventually). On the other hand, even a great product can have trouble overcoming a bad first impression. People remember when you get off on the wrong foot, enough so that bad OOBEs have their own name: Out of Box Failures, or OOBFs. Appropriate, curated product documentation for first-time users is one part of a well-groomed product. Paying attention to the docs can help create the seamless user experience your customers expect.

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