Is your documentation AI and chatbot ready?

It seems likely Artificial Intelligence (AI) and chatbots will play a key role in helping users, in the future. Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft, as well as smaller technology companies, are all developing platforms for simulating an intelligent conversation with human users.

This raises a question:

Will chatbots mean we’ll write a how-to task in the chatbot app, again in the Help, and again in the tutorials?

It’s not very productive to write the same content three times, in three different places. It makes even less sense if you need to update the content on a regular basis, or translate that repeated content into multiple languages.

One solution is to store different types of data in its native format until it is needed, and then serve that information to the AI or chatbot system. You write the content once, and “serve” it to the chatbot, the online Help, the tutorial, and so on.

This requires that content to map accurately to the chatbot’s information structure  –  the use cases; the user’s intent, role and sentiment; and the entity (i.e. the problem and product) that relates to the user’s question.

As a technical communicator, this means you can start by making sure your content is in a structured format. For example, it has metadata (and uses a taxonomy) that will help the AI system or chatbot know which piece of information to serve the user. This includes common metadata such as product, symptom, problem, version, user role and operating system. It may also include new metadata relating to responses based on the user’s current mood (“sentiment”),  and the context in which the question is made to the chatbot.

This approach makes it more likely that your documentation will AI and chatbot ready, at the time when it’s needed.


Tryo Labs has published a useful summary of the different approaches and technologies you can use for creating chatbots. See: Building a Chatbot: analysis & limitations of modern platforms.

See also:

Towards content lakes

Cherryleaf’s technical writing services

Software companies are not selling boxes anymore

Wistia’s Chris Savage has written an article on how the company focuses on articulating its company vision to differentiate itself in a competitive marketplace.

In the article, he states:

“To buy software back in the day, you’d go to the store, buy a box, and bring it home. Inside of the box would be a shiny CD, which had your new program on it.

You’d install the program on your computer, and then you’d use it for a few years. When the next version came out, maybe you’d get a discount because you bought the previous version. If it had some good upgrades, you’d consider making a purchase.

That’s all changed.

Now when you’re buying software, you’re not getting a static product. You’re buying something that’s continually evolving and changing. At Wistia, like most SaaS companies today, we deploy fixes and improvements multiple times per day.

When we buy software today, we’re not just buying into the current benefits, features, and price. Instead, we’re making a bet on the product’s future.”

Customers expect a continuing relationship with companies. They expect the product to grow, to see an ecosystem to evolve. Interwoven into this, is the support they receive. They expect high quality information when they want to explore how to get more out of the product, or troubleshoot any issues. This means User Assistance, the online Help, must become part of the initial design, and part of the user experience. It can no longer be an afterthought bolted on once the product has been developed.

Protecting your brand using technical communication

Lisa Thomas

On BBC Radio 5 live’s Wake Up to Money programme today, Lisa Thomas, Chief Executive of advertising agency M&C Saatchi, said:

“We can’t just think about just one advert. We have to think about the brand and the relationship that consumers have with that brand, and be aware that consumers see your brand and your product everywhere now.

They can have a very direct relationship with that brand, whether that’s via Social Media, whether that’s via just by being more in more contact with those brands and the business, so there’s more imperative now to think holistically about the brand than before, and be more creative.”

The co-presenter, Mickey Clark, commented that he’d heard from David Kershaw (a director at M&C Saatchi)  that even the through the toughest economic times, companies are anxious still to protect their brands, even if they have next to no money.

Brand means the customer’s expectations of what they will get, or experience, when they use a product or service. Today, organisations have to protect the promise, that expectation, and make sure that promise is matched by what they actually experience.

Organisations that think more holistically, and focus more in terms of brand than simply advertisements and sales orders, need to ensure the brand image is consistent throughout the whole of the customer’s experience with it. In this context, technical communication, the instructional content that supports users as they use the product or service, becomes an important means of protecting the brand.

That’s because, when the customer has left the store, all the packaging has thrown away, and the customer is actually using the product, one of the few things left to sustain the brand’s reputation is technical communication – the User Assistance, the technical documentation. This will help support the user through the periods they spend using of that product or service.

What is technical communication, actually?

As a technical communicator, sometimes it can be hard to explain to others what it is you do. In the olden days, it was simpler: you could say you wrote manuals. Then, in more recent times, you could say you wrote online Help and manuals.

Today, there can be uncertainty of what is and isn’t technical communication. It can be unclear if certain deliverables should be created by a technical communicator or by someone else. For example, if content moves from a Help page to an onboarding screen, is it still technical communication? If the text moves into the interface, should the technical communicator create it? Are walkthrough videos a function of training or technical communication?
Continue reading “What is technical communication, actually?”

Customers as advocates

I attended the Customers as Advocates conference yesterday, at the invitation of the hosts Strand Writing and Design. Strand is a copywriting company, and their conference focused on the challenges of creating relationships with customers that will lead onto them providing customer references and case studies.

Although the conference was focused on case studies and advocacy, I was struck by the implications for the user assistance and technical content that organisations produce.

Below are my summaries of two of the presentations.

Ian Williams – Customer Experience and the disappearing sales process

Ian Williams, of Jericho Consulting, looked at what he called “the disappearing sales process”. He quoted research from Google, IDG and Forrester showing how important content and customer recommendations are in the buying process today:

  • 57-70% of the buying journey is complete before a potential customer looks at marketing content or engages with anyone in the sales team (source: CEB/Google).
  • 21% of buying cycle is spent by business buyers in conversations with peers and colleagues (source: IDG).
  • 56% of the buying cycles is spent by business buyers searching for and engaging with content (source: IDG).

He also stated that Customer Experience, and an organisation’s brand, is about “keeping your promise” – that the customer’s expectations must be matched by what they actually get.

Implications for technical communication

This is more evidence that the content Technical Authors create (user guides, FAQs, Help, getting started guides, troubleshooting information etc.) can be an important factor in the buying process. Prospects will do their research, and they seek out trustworthy content about a product.

It also highlights the importance of a consistent message and experience throughout the customer journey. The “promise” must be consistent in the marketing and the user assistance. You also need to deliver on that promise; poor quality post-sales content just won’t do any more.

Mark Gallagher – How Formula 1 will affect your business

Mark Gallagher has been a senior F1 executive of over 20 years. He talked about how the business of Formula 1 is changing, and how those developments are likely to affect the wider business world.

He explained that the Formula 1 constructors were now the world’s experts in capturing data, analysing data, and providing information on performance improvement to the end user. Constructors, such as McLaren, were now applying this expertise to a wide range of industry sectors.

Mark predicted that this expertise could be applied to the “Internet of Things”, where devices capture data and provide advice and information to the end user.

IMPLICATIONS FOR TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION

If these capabilities were applied to mainstream software, perhaps we could see applications such as Word and Excel capturing data on how you use the software, and then providing advice on how you could have completed that task in a better way.

In fact, some applications are providing this type of feedback already. Here’s a screenshot from an Android app called Steno Keyboard. It analyses your keystrokes and tells you if there was a better way:

Screen from Steno Keyboard app

The type of development would change user documentation into performance support, and move more of the user content into the application itself.

Conclusions

This post represents just a few notes from the conference. It’s clear that content, in all its forms, is becoming a key factor in the buying cycle. User Assistance is not just for customers, it’s for prospective customers as well.

The lost Steve Jobs interview – on successful products

Last night, we watched Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview on Netflix. It’s a lengthly (70 minute) interview from 1995, in which Steve Jobs discussed his recipe for a successful business. The interview was made 19 years ago when Steve Jobs was still running NeXT Computers, and just six months before he rejoined Apple.

Here are some highlights.
Continue reading “The lost Steve Jobs interview – on successful products”

Design-led technical documentation

Peter J. Bogaards posted a link on Twitter yesterday to an article and a press release on how IBM is adopting a design-led approach to software design.

“IBM Design Thinking is a broad, ambitious new approach to re-imagining how we design our products and solutions … Quite simply, our goal — on a scale unmatched in the industry — is to modernize enterprise software for today’s user who demands great design everywhere, at home and at work.” (Phil Gilbert, general manager, IBM Design)

I understand the IBM Design Thinking approach will affect everything it does: product development, processes, innovation, and, interestingly, the technical documentation/user assistance associated with products. Both design and traditional technical communication share the same goals – to deliver something that is very usable, robust and aesthetically pleasing – so it makes sense to have the two teams aligned closely.

Continue reading “Design-led technical documentation”