The conversation confusion in technical communication

Flickr CC image by Search Engine PeopleWe noticed last week a few tweets in our Twitter stream about how technical documentation and user assistance will be turning into a conversation.

A dictionary definition of conversation is:

1. The spoken exchange of thoughts, opinions, and feelings; talk.
2. An informal discussion.

 

Informal, verbal, interactive, spontaneous communication is quite different from pretty much all forms of User Assistance you’ll see today, so what do technical communicators mean by “conversation”?

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What does Stack Overflow’s success mean for traditional User Assistance?

Last night, I saw Joel Spolsky speak at a London Enterprise Technology Meetup, held at the London School of Economics. Joel is one of the founders of Stack Overflow, a hugely popular question-and-answer website on the topic of computer programming. He also claimed in a blog post back in April 2000, no-one reads manuals (see our article If no-one reads the manual, then why bother?).

So I asked him about his thoughts on the relationship between question-and-answer sites like Stack Overflow and traditional user documentation.

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Does relationship marketing mean you also need relationship content?

relationship poster Flickr image by TRF_Mr_HydeLast night I saw presentations at the Content Strategy London Meetup from Rob Hinchcliffe (a community strategist), and Sara Treewater (Content project lead for Citi Private Bank’s Web and Mobile team) in which they both mentioned relationship marketing and how it was influencing content strategy.

If your marketing and sales strategy focuses on developing a relationship with your customers and prospects, it makes sense your pre- and post- sales content (such as user documentation) sustains and builds relationships as well. Joe Gollner has called this “relationship content”. This may mean giving people an opportunity to comment, and supplement, your user documentation. In other words, moving from a monologue to a dialogue.

This can be challenging for organisations, particularly for those where there are compliance and regulatory considerations. However, there may be little choice but to do this. Rob Hinchcliffe said in his presentation that, today, content is everywhere. There are unofficial information sources where Google will direct users, if you do not provide content that’s relevant and useful.

If this relationship goes further, you can gain a significant insight into how each individual customer and prospect behaves, and start to disrupt your industry sector. We discuss this in our latest post on the STC’s Notebook blog (we’ll post a link once the post has been published).

New design models for providing end user Help

Ray Gallon has recently completed a series of webinars looking at new models for providing end user Help (A Cognitive Design for User Assistance).

In the third webinar, Ray looked at how people learn today and he suggested a new approach for the future. He used The Common European Framework of Reference for Language‘s description of people’s levels of competences to outline the different ways organisations help people to learn.
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Education technology – Is this also the future for Technical Authors?

(Click on the image to enlarge)

Edudemic has created an infographic outlining the likely future for education. Other education sites, such as Grockit.com, suggest the future of study will have three main strands:

  • spend some time with experts
  • spend time on your own, and
  • spend time with your peers

If education follow this path, will this be true also for technical documentation and other forms of User Assistance? How will Technical Author adapt to these trends?

Unifying conversation and instruction in business communication

One of the challenges organisations face is how to create a system that unifies all the different ways its staff communicate information. That’s because conversation (written and oral) can be very different from instructional information.

For example, conversations are often reflective, insightful and repetitive, whereas instructions are typically results-driven, concise and commanding.

We can see from the video clip below, by storyteller Daniel Morden, how the nature of oral storytelling differs from the written word:

If we cannot access both forms of communication, we’re getting an incomplete picture. Somehow an organisation needs to provide the correct form of communication to staff and end users at the right time.

Although Search can provide part of the answer, there’s also a need to provide links to the different “channels”. This means, in addition to technical solutions (which look to unify different forms of information), someone needs to curate and edit the content.

I’m not sure this challenge will ever be fully resolved, but it’s a goal worth pursuing in nearly every organisation.

The User Manual 2.$

Here is an interesting interview between Robert Scoble and Aaron Fulkerson of Midtouch on how MindTouch’s technical communication software is changing how people work together at big companies.

“We started seeing more and more of our customers—Intuit and Microsoft, Intel and Autodesk and Mozilla – launching these documentation communities where they have a body of content for user manuals,” explains Fulkerson. “Just imagine taking ten DVDs of video and text and putting it on the internet for the first time. What does that do for your search engine optimization? And then building a community around that where [customers] can contribute to it. They’re registering with the site, they’re sharing information with you about how you can improve this or that—of course it’s helping lead generation.”

“Enterprise wikis and documentation communities may sound like rather different applications, but Fulkerson asserts that they’re actually the same use case—they’re just applied to two different things. “One is internal around enterprise systems, the other one is external more around social media sites. But they’re both delivering collaboration and social capabilities in a web-based environment that’s connecting systems together.”

Contact us if you’re interested in looking into Mindtouch’s software.

Here’s the link to register for Mindtouch’s European launch event on 9th Sept

We’ve been sent a new link for registering for Mindtouch’s European launch event on 9th Sept, which is being held in Central London on Thursday 9th September.

We’ll be presenting on “The seven key challenges Technical Publications departments face today”.  The whole event is called “Your Documentation is your Best Storefront. Are You Open for Business?”

Over half of your website traffic is seeking documentation, so you’d better deliver compelling content that converts visitors into revenue.

There will be also a case study presentation from Axa Insurance and other talks and demonstrations from Mindtouch themselves.

The event is free. Here’s the link for registering for Mindtouch’s European launch event on 9th Sept,