Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Observations: Life Does Not Come With A User's Manual

Life Does Not Come With a User's Manual, and, if it did, would it be a PDF file on a CD?

Down-home philosophers have used this month's title phrase (and its variations) for both humor and insight, but the topic of owner's manuals is also valuable for exploring the ever-changing role of paper, which I introduced in my June column (Observer, 6/07). This subject also gives me a chance to spotlight another great marketing story in my ongoing series of companies and their ability to identify and satisfy customer needs to achieve success in the printing industry.

Historically, I think many people have pleasant associations of cars and their owner's manuals. For example, savoring a detailed owner's manual for a newly purchased Cadillac could be one of life’s great pleasures. However, the growing list of optional feature sets for automobiles led to a classic print-on-demand opportunity. High-end automobile manufacturers replaced a lengthy, confusing manual that includes every variation of features available for a particular model with a customized, personalized manual tailored to each owner's specific car.

Early models of technology products such as printers, cameras, and scanners also came with lengthy and often obtuse owner or user manuals. Today's information technology manufacturers, at least those that cater to consumers and small businesses, have adopted a simple "getting started" map-like sheet as the only hard-copy document and have relegated reference materials to a PDF file on a software CD or DVD.

In the technology area, these so-called "soft copy" manuals that video game and software manufacturers have also embraced have been good for business. Bulky physical manuals take up space and add cost, so excluding them in a variety of products allows manufacturers and resellers to maximize valuable shelf space and reduce shipping dollars. In addition, consumers do not seem to mind the lack of hard-copy documentation, at least not enough to make a big fuss.

The move from stuffing a big printed manual into the box to including a PDF version on the requisite software CD could be cited as a great, shining example of "print and distribute" moving to "distribute and print." In my personal case, however, the move could be more aptly described as "distribute and then possibly print," as using an online instruction manual definitely has its advantages. It is more natural for a user to look up a question online than it is to keep track of a CD after the product packaging has been discarded. A Google search is less hassle and has the advantage of retrieving the latest product references.

Ironically, with all the talk of moving away from paper-based manuals, I know of at least one example of an owner's manual moving back to hard copy. Alexander's Print Advantage of Lindon, UT, is a 28-year-old commercial print shop that has partnered with AxisPointe, another Utah-based firm, to produce customized homeowner's manuals. AxisPointe created the concept and markets the manuals to homebuilders in all 50 United States. AxisPointe has an alliance with CountryWide Financial Corporation to provide advertising that helps defray the cost of the manuals. Each homeowner's manual contains the home's floor plan, restrictive covenants and requirements, and contact information for every subcontractor and manufacturer who worked on the home. In addition, the manual includes the model number, a color sample, and the warranty care and use information for all of the home's contents. As a result, the manual meets the homeowner's need to have all of the home's important information conveniently located in one place.

Alexander’s has experience with other visionary print-on-demand projects, including the firm’s foray with FranklinCovey Corporation and a design-your-own personal planner product. When asked about his company's ability to win these deals, Jeff Alexander, founder and president of Alexander's Print Advantage, says, "It’s all about technology, and not just the hardware." According to Alexander, differentiators include the company's bindery capabilities, workflow automation, and integration with its hardware base, which includes equipment from HP, OcĂ©, and Xerox. As a result, Alexander says that his firm can better satisfy its partner/customer and end users when compared to the competition.

But this month’s example is not a pure “paper wins out in the end” story. Homebuilders include a CD with the manual, as well as Web links to related information. The printer industry is learning that today’s world includes mixed media, and companies need to accept this fact and take advantage of it, just as Alexander’s Print Advantage delivers to homeowners the whole package that includes print and electronic versions of the AxisPointe homeowner’s manual.

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