Recently I interviewed a couple IT pros I know to get their feedback on our products and our technical documentation (most of the questions are about Exchange, Exchange documentation, and Office 365, since I work on those products). My goal is to get a feel for how an IT pro approaches our products and the documentation on TechNet. The first interview is with my brother, Michael. He owns an IT-consulting firm in Orange County, California, called Emberlabs. They provide IT support and services for small businesses - typically with 10-50 employees. He specializes in implementations of Exchange and Windows Small Business Server. The following questions and answers are taken from our conversation:

What businesses are your customers in?
Beauty products, auto sales, manufacturing, recruiting. Many kinds.

What are their IT environments like?
I have several customers running Windows Server 2008 with a separate Exchange server at their site, and a few on Windows Small Business Server 2011, which includes Exchange and SharePoint. I also have a couple running Windows Server on premises with Exchange Online for messaging.  

What versions of Exchange do your customers use?
Several use Exchange 2010. I have one on Exchange 2007, and one on Exchange 2003. I'm going to upgrade the customer on Exchange 2003 soon. There are also a couple on Exchange Online, which I mentioned.

Why not use the whole Office 365 suite, which includes SharePoint and Lync?
To some of our customers, SharePoint is new. So I give them the option of having Exchange only, which is less money.

I'm currently training one of our customers to use SharePoint, but it can take time.

Do you have a rule of thumb for recommending that a customer upgrade their server software?
Typically, we'll initially look at their hardware to see if it's still under warranty. Most server vendors offer a three-year warranty at the time of purchase. In the majority of cases, we advise the customer to buy two additional years, so each server is covered for five years. After that five-year period ends, we'll upgrade their servers and their server software. 

If you were looking for an anti-spam-protection solution for a customer, how would you find it?
I already know who the bigger players are, from reading industry news: Postini, FOPE, Barracuda, MX Logic.

If I were looking for a new provider, I'd search the Web. At this point he opens a browser at his desk and performs a few searches, including "mx spam filtering providers," "best spam filtering MX providers," and "Microsoft spam filtering."

I'd read reviews. He clicks a link for FOPE and it redirects him to the EOP landing page.

A dollar a month is a good deal. When am I going to be upgraded? He laughs. (His customers use FOPE.)

How do you find product help, in general?
I use search engines, like Google and Bing. I like descriptive titles [for topics].

I ask him to look at a couple Exchange Server help topics, to get his feedback. I tell him that we've made some changes to the way we document Exchange, by being more prescriptive and covering distinct scenarios. Initially, I show him Create an SMTP Send Connector, from the Exchange Server 2010 documentation. As a contrast, I show him Create a Send Connector for Email Sent to the Internet from the Exchange Server 2013 TechNet help content.

What are you looking for when you view a procedural topic like these?
If I'm looking at a topic like this, I'm trying to do a task. I usually go straight to the steps. If there is too much text on the page, it can be overwhelming. (Waves his hand at the screen.) I just skip down to the part I need.

Usually It's okay if the topic isn't addressing the exact task I'm trying to solve. If it's similar to what I'm trying to do, I can improvise, while using the topic steps as a reference.

I like that this is targeted. (Here he's referring to the latter topic.) Like 'Create a send connector to do this…' I like when these topics show up in search, because I can see what the topic is going to tell me before I go there. I don't want too many things to do, all in one place.

What do you think of video or conceptual graphics in a topic?
The more the better. If I find a video that shows how to complete a task I want to do, I'll watch it to get a feel for the steps. Just this morning I watched a video about Hyper-V configuration. The video is a confidence builder. It helps me understand the big idea. Then I'll read the steps in the topic while doing the task. Sometimes I'll watch the video and then go perform the steps, without even reading the topic.

Screenshots are good. You don't have to show every step. Just the most important. Anything visual is cool.

I show him a few conceptual topics covering connectors. 

Do you read the high-level conceptual documents?
I don't read these as much.

In a subsequent blog post I will share an interview I did with another IT pro, covering the same subjects.