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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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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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).

Webinar: The changing nature of content

You’re welcome to join us on our upcoming free webinar, “The changing nature of content”, which will be held at 7pm (GMT+1) on 24th April 2013.

In recent years, technical communicators have focused on improving User Assistance through new technologies and systems, with the assumption that the nature of the content the tone of voice, the writing style ­ should remain the same. In this free webinar, sponsored and hosted by Adobe, we’ll investigate whether the tried ­and tested writing methods from past decades still make sense today. We’ll look at the reasons why some organisations are “breaking the rules” with the User Assistance they provide.

The registration details will be posted to the Adobe online events Web page in the next few days.

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.

 

Our 2nd ‘Trends in Technical Documentation’ Talk – 9th May 2012

Cherryleaf is curating and hosting a programme of talks on trends in technical documentation. At these sessions, there’ll be presentations from respected members of the Technical Communication profession, plus the opportunity to network with your peers.

The next talk is:

User Assistance in a Social World

We’ll be looking questions, such as: Where does technical documentation fit in a world of Twitter and social media? Is User Assistance different in Social Media applications?

The speakers will be Briana Wherry, Director, Programme Management of Alfresco Software and Dr. Adrian Bredenkamp, CEO of Acrolinx GmbH.

Date and time: 9th May 2012 10.01pm-12.31pm
Location: Birdcage Walk, London SW1H

The event will be free, but with priority for places given to our customers.

Spaces are limited to 14 delegates

Contact us if you’d like to attend.

This event will not be recorded or streamed.

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.

The SEO benefits of Web-based Help – case studies

Web-based product documentation is often the quickest way to learn how to resolve an issue, and we can see this from statistics provided recently by both Mindtouch and Atlassian.

Mindtouch is reporting organic searches account for almost 60% of referrals to its client Autodesk’s WikiHelp product documentation community. Online Help is also the number one lead source for RightScale, another Mindtouch user. According to Mindtouch:

Rather than relying on marketing to educate customers on how Autodesk products are solving real issues, they’re using SEO-friendly documentation on WikiHelp and the WikiHelp community to show 13 Autodesk products in action.

Sarah Maddox of Atlassian confirms this trend, revealling their user documentation Web site now attracts more traffic than the main company Web site.

You too can save your organisation money and have your documentation solution become a primary lead generation source for you. Contact us if you’d like to discover how.