Category redefinition for tech comm?

I am a big classical music fan. That explains why this headline from the Harvard Business Review blog caught my eye: “How Category Creation is Reinvigorating Classical Music.” In a nutshell, the author of the article argues that classical music is experiencing something of a rebirth due acts like The Piano Guys. The driving factor behind this rebirth, he argues, is that groups like the Piano Guys have actually created a new category of classical music. He describes this category like this:

Fun, breakthrough innovation in the form of five minute videos that showcase their classical music skills, but also their CGI skills in creating fun, funny and funky parodies. Instead of selling tickets, they post their videos and sell advertising. (They also use the traditional model of selling CDs — they were just signed by Sony last year.) If you haven’t seen the Piano Guys, watch a few of their videos and you may be hooked. You’ll laugh at their Star Wars parody, be amazed at their rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon, or cry at their Les Miserable tribute to our men and women in uniform…but I guarantee you won’t fall asleep.

When I was in business school at the University of Texas, one of my professors (Vish Krishnan, now at UCSD) argued that Adobe used this same principle when they created Photoshop Elements. Prior to the introduction of Photoshop Elements, Adobe’s only photo editing offering was full-blown Photoshop, which was far too advanced and far too expensive for anybody but the most avid professional photographers. Photoshop Elements was essentially a stripped-down version of Photoshop that included only a small subset of Photoshop functionality, and it was offered at a small fraction of the price of Photoshop.

The introduction of Photoshop elements, Krishnan argued, essentially created a new category of photo editing software, and as a result, uncovered an entire new market — the amateur photographer who wants a simple program to make basic touch-ups to photos. Today, Adobe claims that Photoshop Elements has been the #1 selling consumer photo editing software over the past decade. It has been a gold mine for Adobe, and it created tens of thousands of new Adobe customers.

What Adobe did to Photoshop and what The Piano Guys are doing to classical music isn’t much different — take an existing, defined category, and repackage some of its elements in ways that appeal to broader audiences.

I’ve been wondering how any of this might apply to technical communication. It’s no secret that many people seem to have a disdain for help. My good friend, Tom Johnson, has an outstanding post that explores this topic (see Do We Need a New Approach to Help? Why Are Users So Apathetic Towards Help after 50 Years of Innovation?).

Are there principles from category redefinition or creation that could apply to technical communication? Are there ways we might be able to re-package or even re-define what we do to make help more appealing for users? What conventional wisdom about help can we challenge to help our category grow?

I’ll be posting more thoughts on this in coming weeks. What are your thoughts?

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