Is your Technical Author a “Quant” or a “Pundit”?

The US Presidential elections have just ended, and the big winners were the “Quants” – the statisticians such as Nate Silver, who used statistical models of big data sets to accurately predict the electoral college vote results. In competition with the Quants were the “Pundits”. These were the commentators on politics, some of whom said they were using gut feel to make their predictions. Pretty much all of the Pundits failed to predict the results accurately.

It is our experience that there is a similar difference between different Technical Publications teams.

Continue reading “Is your Technical Author a “Quant” or a “Pundit”?”

Creating franchise operations manuals that are customisable and controlled

Creating an operations manual is a key part of franchising any business, as it helps ensure each franchisee is operating in the way that made the original, franchised, business successful in the first place. You want reliable, repeatable, consistent performance from every franchised location.

However, it’s often the case that there needs to be slight variations between each franchised location. The challenge is, how can this be reflected in the operations manual?

For example, let’s say a company called Doner-Summa decides to franchise its business selling turkish doner pizzas and have franchises in Leeds (in the UK) and Dublin (in Ireland). It wants to have standard operating procedures in the case of a fire, but it has the challenge that the layout of each store is different, as is the emergency telephone number between the two countries.

The solution is to create a franchise operations manuals where certain sections are controlled centrally by the franchisor, and where other sections can be customised to reflect the particular situation of each franchisee:

When the Leeds branch adds its content to its operations manual, it contains important and specific information relevant to their situation. In this case, the location of the fire alarms and the evacuation point:

The Dublin branch operations guide looks similar, but the building diagram and the emergency number are different:

With this approach, Doner-Summa has not passed over all control of the manual to the franchisees. It still has the ability to make iterative improvements to the processes and procedures from the centre.

Let’s say, for example, Doner-Summa discovers the procedure states people should contact the operator, when they should contact the fire brigade. It can make a change to the centrally controlled core procedure, and this change will auto-magically be inserted into all the franchisees’ versions of the guide.

Change made to the core procedure here:

Results in the franchisees operations manuals being automatically updated to reflect the change:

Of course, any printed versions of the operations guide will only be updated when a new version of the guide is printed out by the franchisee. However, it’s possible for an automatic notification email to be sent out to every franchisee whenever the core content has been amended. Also, any online or  tablet versions of the manual will have been updated in real time.

Note: Turkish pizzas do exist in Germany. They are donor kebabs wrapped in a burrito-type bread instead of pitta bread. Doner-Summa is not meant to reflect any existing business with the same or similar name.

Setting a marketing strategy for a Technical Publications Dept

A good Technical Publications manager will, naturally, set a strategy for their department. In addition to the HR, technical and project management aspects, there’s another factor to consider – the marketing strategy for the department.

Sales consultant Richard White advises businesses define and describe the archetypes for their particular product or service. He means the types of people who might buy your product or service. Many Technical Authors develop personas representing the variety of different end users, which is a similar exercise. However, when it comes to defining those who fund and initiate the services of the Tech Pubs department, who or what are those archetypes?

One archetype can be ‘the uncertain manager’. They know a product should come with user assistance (e.g. user guides and online Help), but they are uncertain of the value of providing it. This means they can’t quantify how much money to invest in the department (or in a contractor, a technical writing company etc).

So how should you market the Tech Pubs Dept. to this archetype?

In this situation, it’s a case of helping them determine the value of user documentation. Measurement tools (such as our free support call cost reduction calculator) can help, but it’s also important to understand what issues they have and need to solve. You may need to frame the value of the department with reference to their challenges.

If you can think of any problems and needs an ‘uncertain manager’ might have, do list them below. How do you think you could demonstrate your value to them? We welcome your thoughts.

The “Beyond Documentation” Webinar videos

Scriptorium Inc has uploaded the “Beyond Documentation” Webinar Ellis delivered back in August 2009. In this session he looked at the future of technical writing and likely changes to the ways in which user assistance is delivered.

We asked:

  • Are we moving beyond documents?
  • If so, what does this mean for technical communicators?

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

You can see more videos on Cherryleaf’s YouTube channel.


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.

Your future as a republisher

Visualisation Magazine has created a diagram showing how you can use Web 2.0 tools to increase the number of readers of your content – “building an online presence”. It shows the extent to which content can be republished today, through free sites, Web feeds and embedded content. It also shows how you can monitor and receive statistical information on its progress.

So why keep your content tucked away in a Help file, when it can be republished in some many other places as well?

Link to an explanation of the diagram.

What’s the point of user documentation, from a marketing perspective?

I was talking to a Documentation Manager earlier in the week, who was telling me she had a new boss – a VP of Marketing. She was having to work for someone who didn’t see the value in user documentation, and she was finding it difficult fighting her corner.

The challenge she faces is understanding the way marketing people see the world, and then explaining the role of documentation within this world view.

So does this organisation actually need to spend so much on documentation? Maybe this Marketing VP could be right. If the bulk of its users “muddle through”, then maybe they never look at the documentation?

Muddling through means users work out the main things they want to do, but never discover the extra features and capabilities of a product. It’s the path to millions of video recorders in homes flashing 00:00 on the front, because few people knew how to set the timer.  They could still play video tapes, they just couldn’t record programmes whilst they were away from the machine.

The downside of this, is that users then place little value on these extra features – they never use them – and the product becomes seen as a commodity. If they all do the same thing, then why not buy the cheapest?

Marketing people describe this as market differentiation and market positioning. If you are positioning your product away from the cheapest end of the market, then you need users to value the capabilities that make your product different. You need users to use them. So perhaps you should explain how documentation can help the organisation achieve this goal.

Marketing people often talk about market segmentation and target markets. They use different messages for different groups. So it’s worth talking about the different types of users – different key markets – and they ways they prefer to receive information.

Marketing people also talk about the average Customer Lifetime Value. Wikipedia describes this as:

“Use of customer lifetime value as a marketing metric tends to place greater emphasis on customer service and long-term customer satisfaction, rather than on maximizing short-term sales.”

This value should extend to not only the revenues generated by a customer, but also the costs incurred in supporting a customer. So it’s worth talking about how user documentation helps retain customers and reduce the cost of supporting them over time.

However, the Marketing department might be only looking at new ways to promote the business – using Twitter, user forums, wikis and suchlike. These types of Marketing people are usually focused on Relationship Marketing – building trusted relationships between the customer (or prospect) and the organisation. They may also be focused on Search Engine Optimisation – appearing high up the list in Google. So it’s worth looking back at some of the posts we’ve written in this blog on how user documentation helps builds trust with clients or prospects and can provide information rich content that Google loves.

They may also be thinking about brand image and the perceived quality of the product. These are reasons often cited by customers when we ask them why they’ve engaged us to write their user documentation.

In order to understand the way marketing people see the world, it’s worth reading Blogs on marketing (by people such as Seth Godin), the Cluetrain Manifesto, and reading a few books on marketing.

Lessons for technical communicators from the telecommunications sector

It’s often useful to look at the economic and technological pressures in other industries, to see if the trends emerging there are relevant to the technical communications/publications sector. In recent Blogs, we’ve covered the issues emerging in education, but the telecommunications industry might also provide some useful insights.

Lee Dryburgh, organiser of the Emerging Communications Conference, has been interviewed by Skype  about how he see the future of telecommunication. The key points in this interview are:

  • Widespread deployment of a method of communicating, long cultural embedment, extreme ease of use and very low barriers to usage, means it’s not going away in a big way, at any time least soon.
  • We are seeing software offer a new stronger “Relationships” between people. Distribution is relatively zero-cost and it achieves unprecedented scale.

He’s talking about telephony and Skype, but couldn’t that also be true for paper and Web-based online Help?

Dryburgh sees a new phase emerging that will have deeper impact yet.  He said:

“Phase two is built around an economic model that puts human time and attention at a premium. It’s the opposite of what we experience today with telephony, where human time and attention is wasted.”

“Phase two is about intention-based economics. It’s focused on fulfilling intentions and desires … I’m not saying we need to become psychologists and anthropologists. But what we need to build for is access to ever more personal information, i.e. about the human behind the endpoint. Privacy does not exist looking long-term. Ever more personal information is the new currency, which underlies intention-based economics, and people will increasingly trade it for free access to services. “

“If any of this seems abstract at the moment, think about what makes Google money, Ad Words. Google provides search free to the consumer in order to gain eyeballs (mass attention) and takes the search parameter to try and deduce intention. It then sells that attention and intention data upstream to advertisers.”

Could this also happen in the technical documentation arena? Would seeing technical documentation in the context of new economic ideas, such as  intention-based economics  and the economics of attention, affect how and what was created?  Would it change the nature of conversations with management and marketing?