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What’s wrong with user “help desks”?

I was pleased to have Trevor, our IT guy, tell me that he agrees about the downsides of user help desks. Here are a few paragraphs about this from an article that I’ve contributed to Upgrade, the Software and Information Industry Association’s magazine:

At Berkshire Publishing, we use online project management software called Basecamp, and I wanted to post my Outlook calendar so staff, reps, and our publicist could easily access it, in real time. But Basecamp is built on open source, and Outlook is from Microsoft. I clicked on Help and found myself at a forum, hosted by Basecamp, where people discussed solutions to this problem. I was fascinated. The participants sounded so knowledgeable and cooperative: “I tried your solution and it worked, except –”

The discussion went on for pages, and I felt more and more hopeful. These guys would surely solve the problem, and I would be able to impress my IT guy with having figured this out myself.
But the more I read, the less certain I felt that there was a clear solution that I would be able to execute. Because, you see, there is no editor or publisher to delete the well-intentioned dead ends, to rewrite the explanations that are too long and complicated, and to test the final instructions. Because in a medium like this there are no final instructions.

Forums are full of good ideas and bad ones, and if it’s your special subject, and you don’t have anything else planned for a rainy afternoon, you might want to while away the time this way. But after first creating trust—key to any social network—the tech forum lost me because it didn’t answer my question in a way I could understand. And that is good news for publishers, because it means that they will continue to have a role to play in the world of online and social media.

Part of what publishers do—and what our customers pay for—is to weed out most of the material we see. Most publishers reject 99% of the submissions they receive, and in general that’s to the customer’s benefit because it saves them time and money and gives them what they want without frustrating searches.

Trevor pointed out that he could easily get mired in exchanges with well-intentioned people who don’t actually know much, and we’re wondering what companies are doing, switching from real technical support from people who are expert in a particular system, to letting the users figure things out among themselves. I wonder if third grade classrooms could be run like this? I find that for hobbies, a user forum is tremendous, but when it comes to precise information I’d much rather have access to an expert, with a users forum as an adjunct.

One thought on “What’s wrong with user “help desks”?

  1. Just one thing: Basecamp isn’t open source, it’s run as a commercial enterprise by 37Signals. There’s even a support email address on this page:

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