Changing times in technical communication 2 – Workflow

Science Museum/Science & Society Picture LibraryWe’ve been on the road in recent days and weeks, visiting different documentation teams, and we’ve found there are distinct signs of change. In this post, I’ll look at how we’re starting to see the workflow for creating User Assistance beginning to change.

We found many documentation teams overstretched and starting to be asked how they could create content for new products that were coming along. Some organisations have decided they can only deal with this extra workload if they rethink the workflow for how content is created.

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The secret to user generated and crowd sourced content

Mozilla’s Janet Swisher had a number of useful tips at Technical Communications UK 2012 on how to encourage user generated and community based content:

  • People contribute because they want to learn something and for personal growth. You need to recognise this work.
  • Crowds aren’t smart, communities of peers are.
  • Create a community about the topic of interest, not solely about your product. For example, create a community on camping, not on your brand or your camping products. Solve common problems, rather than niche ones.
  • Community based content is where contributors share a common goal. User generated content is often “all about me”.
  • You can review contributions before they go live on the site, or review them after they have been published. You need to choose the approach that works for you.

Having a forum where customers can express their views can be deeply uncomfortable for organisations. Organisations tend to encourage what Leon Benjamin called a “red zone/green zone mentality”. The green zone is safe and trustworthy and within the organisation. The “red zone” is anything outside of the organisation – and can be seen as risky, dangerous and untrustworthy. Yet the reality is that most people get information from outside the organisation (from the red zone).

Users will express opinions and publish contributions on other sites, if you don’t create your own forum. If you create the community, then you will be more able to control the accuracy, authority and accessibility of and to this information.

Having said that, sometimes you need to publish to areas outside of your control. For example, issuing your manuals via Amazon Kindle might expose you to user reviews. They could say they hate it or that they love it. That public feedback can be daunting, but remember we all have our filters to assess the information.

 

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?

Review of “WIKI: Grow your own for fun and profit”

XML Press kindly sent me a reviewer’s copy of Alan J. Porter’s book “WIKI: Grow your own for fun and profit”. I interviewed Alan earlier in the year (which you can see on the Cherryleaf YouTube Channel), so it was good to see the book that he was mentioning in the interview.

It’s important not to think that wikis only = Wikipedia. You could argue that applications such as Confluence and Mindtouch 2010 are wikis as well – wikis enhanced with powerful tools for software user documentation, but wikis, nonetheless.

As Scott Abel says in the introduction, most organisations have yet to manage the art of managing content. They make two common mistakes: (1) they see content as either documents or structured data, and (2) they see it as purely a software problem.

Wikis offer technical communicators a handy route into an organisations for them to tackle poor content. That’s because wiki software is generally very cheap and the techies like them. There are still issues around “round tripping” (getting content in and out, and back in again) and link management, but these are not insurmountable.

Alan, I’m pleased to say, has not been seduced by the software, but has set the use of a wiki within a very usable framework. He’s spot on when it comes to the benefits a wiki can offer and the implementation approach to take.

The wonderful, horrible life of User Generated Content

User Generated Content (UGC), that is user documentation written by users, is growing trend in the world of technical communication. However, although there are enormous benefits from UGC, we’ve found it can lead users to miss professionally written user documentation. The consequence of this can be that users search and navigate down blind allies in a search for useful and relevant information.

So is UGC creating a scotoma, or tunnel vision, in the mind of the users?

Let’s look at an example

This blog, by one software vendor, describes a solution for how organisation can host its own powerful content management system “in the cloud” for peanuts. It comes with disclaimers that this is not supported officially by the vendor, but there’s evidence it is possible. Via the comments at the end of the blog post, you’ll discover the original solution has been superseded, but the writer has helpfully provided a rough outline on the best way to do it today.

So the curious user is sent off on a quest to find the complete answer.

The first stop on this quest is the links in the article itself. Because the solution is not supported officially, in this example, the linked pages do not provide the full answer.

So what does the user do next? We found, in most cases, their second step will be to search on Google and see if the solution has been provided anywhere else. In this example, it will lead them to blog articles written by a variety of different people and organisations. This article, by Phil Paradis, for example, provides his solution to the problem.

We found the a key problem with the user generated content in the scenario above, it wasn’t clear whether the advice was still valid or not. A user could spend a great deal of time diving into the murky depths of Linux terminal commands, only to discover eventually that the hosting software part of the solution had been updated to be more user-friendly. What’s more, it now came with very clear user assistance.

Why are users going towards the unofficial documentation?

There are a number of possible reasons why users are more likely to be ending up looking at the unofficial rather than official documentation:

  • The user starts by reading a blog and expects the answer to also be in a blog. The reader has created a scotoma in their mind.
  • The search terms entered by the user into Google are more likely to lead them to unofficial content than official content.
  • Because the solution is not supported officially, the official documentation does not provide information on this topic.
  • The official user documentation is not ranked highly by Google.
  • The official user documentation has been poorly written, in comparison to the unofficial content.

What is the solution?

A lot of software solutions are based on integrating a number of applications and services together, and it’s not uncommon for people to be looking for the type of answer outlined in the example above.

As there are a number of reasons why the problem may occur, so there are a number of possible solutions:

  • The official user documentation needs to be findable via Google. If users begin their quest by searching, then they are likely to continue to use that approach.
  • Present professional user documentation and user generated content in the same system. If they begin by following links, then they likely to continue using that approach. If we can guide users to professional user documentation, with all the version control and provenance information it usually contains, at the right time, then we may be able to combine the best of both types of user documentation.
  • Engage with the bloggers via the comments to provide links back to the official documentation.
  • Consider the search terms users might enter and provide information that will appear high in the rankings. This may involve creating pages on topics that are not supported officially and contain a number of caveats.

We welcome your thoughts and comments.

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,

How the curse of the jilted Technical Author hit Google

Beware the software developer who releases software without adequate user assistance (in plain English: user guides and online Help) for “The curse of the jilted Technical Author” may strike your product.

This curse has just hit Google, who last week announced the demise of Google Wave.

Google released Google Wave without any online Help or a guide for users – just a 45 minute video and two shorter “getting started” video guides.

We blogged at the time of its launch that this could hamper the uptake of the software, saying:

While the application clearly works (although there is some uncertainty as to whether some behaviours are “features” or bugs), this unfamiliarity means that users could give up and reject the application.

(See Google Wave – A case study in 21st Century User Assistance and Google seeks to increase uptake of Google Wave by introducing witty user documentation)

As more complex software is released as “Software as a Service” and delivered as “in the Cloud” software, it’s likely more users will struggle and stop using the product – that is, unless adequate Help is provided as well.

We’ll be speaking at Mindtouch’s European launch event on 9th Sept

We’ve been invited to present at Mindtouch’s European launch event, which is being held in Central London on Thursday 9th September.

Our theme will be 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. Mindtouch’s contact details are here.