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Friday, July 30, 2004

Overture: The Missing Manual

Here I've been napping through the production of The Missing Manual, this many-titled series from O'Reilly. The idea is that software companies don't always do a great job of documentation, so the books by these authors on subjects like "Dreamweaver MX 2004: The Missing Manual," fills a much-needed gap.

A post on Slashdot tonight reviewed a new one called Google: The Missing Manual. As I've become more of a marketing weasel, I have become a search dummy, so any kind of refresher course as to how to improve one's ability to find stuff using Google is welcome. Sounds like a good read, so it's off to Amazon to order a copy.

In a related development, Overture -- evidently growing impatient with the idea that some enterprising third party might someday create a 'missing manual' for advertising on the service -- have finally released their own 110-page "advertiser workbook."

(Where's the payoff, Andrew? What are you getting at? C'mon, just say it.)

Glad you asked. Having looked closely at this type of stuff to try to understand how it fits together, it looks like there are about three levels to this:

1. The actual how-to, tutorials, FAQ's, workbooks, etc. that are produced by the software company or services themselves. These will teach you how to play, but won't tell you how to win.

2. Books by tech publishers and how-to publishers that offer much the same as "1," but go beyond the basics in some way. They might not teach you how to compete in a tough marketplace or offer unusual or cutting-edge insights, but they'll help you make the most of the technology or service in question. They also make good books for people who don't like reading FAQ's and manuals. Best of all though they offer an unbiased third-party perspective, filtered through a quality editorial process. This type of communication usually isn't in the DNA of software companies.

3. Original books on a topic that discuss new and unusual techniques, make risky assertions, describe more real-world cases in detail, and change the way at least some of the world thinks about a topic. In investing, for example, you might cite Peter Lynch's Beating the Street, or books by William O'Neill or Benjamin Graham.

It's clearly a shame that many technology companies release sophisticated products without giving much thought to the communication methods that would improve customers' abilities to get the most out of them. At the same time, that does provide publishers like O'Reilly and scores of others with an opportunity, fueled by us, the public, who are equally willing to be either engaged or bored by a topic depending on the way it's presented. Tell me how often you read the owner's manual for your car. But I'd be willing to bet that the "missing manual" concept (and more) could catch on. Car lovers might just get off on a book like "1001 things you didn't know about your Acura."

An even greater shame, though, would be the belief that once the "missing manual" is discovered, that's all you need. To develop an edge, and to truly live, one must also read challenging, personable, groundbreaking, or even downright maddening books on a topic, be it usability, child-rearing, or the discovery of DNA.

Malcolm Gladwell spun a case study of erasing subway graffiti into a fascinating study called The Tipping Point; it was wildly influential. Michael Lewis' Moneyball turned the arcane subject of sabermetrics into a trend that has started to change the way baseball teams are managed; such trends may bear a striking resemblance to trends that may eventually transform your business. When James Fallows wrote about word processing eons ago, he made all writers feel like their involvement in this new technology put them on the frontier of a brave new world. "Now that," as the saying goes, "is interesting writing!"

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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