The big questions in technical communication

David Farbey wrote a semi-existentialist post on the challenges for technical communicators yesterday. I’d like to look at the issue in a different way, by looking at the big questions in technical communication today. The answers to these questions (which may be decided by people outside of the profession) are likely to affect the future direction for technical communicators.

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We explain things

Danielle M. Villegas has just pointed us towards a five minute lightning talk by Rick Lippencott on the future of technical communication, and its value. Rick covers in five  minutes a great deal of the content I covered in my 45 minute presentation at the same conference – it’s worth watching.

He summarises the value of Technical Authors in three simple words :”We explain things”.

Rick added some notes to the description on YouTube:

The clay tablet “first example of tech documentation” is about ten thousand years old, not two thousand.
The odd photo at about the 4:50 mark (where I say any of us could have explained it better) was a hotel room layout map posted at the elevators. It gave room locations based on compass points, but there was no way for the reader to know which way was actually north. It was completely useless.
“All of this has happened before, and it will happen again” was originally from Peter Pan.

Where does technical documentation fit into a “Freemium” business model?

This short video by Penny Power explains the Freemium model and how it applies to her business:

So where does the Technical Publications department fit into this model?

Traditionally, the user documentation has been given away free with a chargeable product. It’s not been chargeable in itself, but people have been required to buy a product in order to have access to it. Today, many organisations are still reluctant to make their documentation freely available on their Web site. It has meant that documentation has been seen as a cost, which has then lead to budgetry pressures upon the Technical Publications department.

Underlying this, is an assumption:

More free technical documentation = Fewer chargeable support and consultancy opportunities

The Freemium model challenges this assumption, offering the potential for:

More free technical documentation = More chargeable support and consultancy opportunities

Can technical documentation really act as funnel to more chargeable services? With Web Analytics, you can test this idea. What’s more, you can use analytics to test different ways for increasing the conversion rate from “free to fee”.

The Freemium model can be difficult for many businesses. It challenges the ideas of property, scarcity and value. If your business does find it scary, be thankful you’re not competing with Google, as it sometimes adopts a “less than free” model!

This does not mean your business should give away free consultancy. It can educate your clients in understanding what is chargeable and what is not. Indeed, it could help you with sales prospecting and qualifying, educating users to:

  • Understand your company’s skills and capabilities
  • See the value of your company’s chargeable services
  • Understand the “ground rules” between you and your prospects.

In our case, we’re always expanding our own knowledge, as well as teaching others. A key part of our company’s culture and identity has been to share knowledge willingly. It helps people get a better understanding of our company, demonstrating our expertise and our areas of knowledge. We do it to challenge people’s thinking, and more importantly, to be challenged ourselves.
 
We share what we learn and find through a number of means. We share through this blog. We share via our newsletter, for information better suited to dissemination in this manner. We also host peer group mentoring meetings for documentation leaders, and we’re members of other peer groups ourselves. If an organisation wants to call upon external advice or resources, we’d like to think they’d consider using our services.

A Freemium approach may mean that the Technical Publications department has decide what to give away for free and what (if anything) to hold back.  Alongside the technical aspects of publishing different versions and controlling access to them, it raises the issue of what belongs where and what has the greatest value. Again, this is where Web Analytics and, perhaps, usability testing can help you make those judgements.

We welcome your thoughts.