How to build a multi-million dollar business by putting manuals on the Web

One of the issues we’ve been promoting for many years is the importance for Technical Authors to publish their user guides and online Help on the Web. A surprisingly large amount of companies still don’t offer Web versions, for reasons that include:

  • It’s too difficult
  • Our competitors might read it and reverse-engineer our product
  • Support/Training/Marketing will object

The problem with this approach is that others are likely step in and fulfil this need. One such person is Kyle Wiens, CEO of ifixit.com, who I saw present at the STC Summit 2012 conference last week.

Kyle has built a multi-million dollar business on the back of offering repair manuals that manufacturers choose not to put on the Web. The manuals are available free-of-charge, with ifixit.com making money from selling spare parts.

self-repair manfiesto

Wiens said that if machines in other industries — for example, tractors used by farmers — were to break down over a handful of years and couldn’t be easily repaired, consumers would openly revolt. “In industries where consumers really care about a quality, long-lasting product, there’s no way companies can get away with it,” he said. more

We’ve suggested in the past that organisations publish Help for their competitors’ products, so they can engage with their future customers.

Publishing to the Web provides a path to publishing to mobile devices and tablets. It also means, finally, Technical Author can measure the value of what they produce – how many people want to read it and what they think of it.

Regardless of the objections from other departments, this is probably the single most important thing a Technical Author can do.

Do you agree?

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.

Technical writing in the Cloud

One of the most popular developments in computing in recent years has been the emergence of cloud-based computing and Software as a Service (SaaS). Examples of cloud-based computing include Google’s GMail: Instead of an application being installed locally on a user’s computer, it runs on a remote server, accessed via the user’s Web browser.

So is technical writing likely to move to the Cloud? Let’s look at the different approaches.

Why would you want to write using a cloud-based application?

There are a number of reasons why a Technical Author might want to use a cloud-based application. The first reason is cost. Instead of purchasing an application, cloud-based applications are typically offered on a monthly fee basis. If you’re looking to move to a DITA authoring environment, this spreading of costs could prove an attractive alternative to the upfront costs associated with buying a DITA solution.

There are other reasons, why you might also consider moving to a cloud-based solution:

  • If you have staff, a technical writing partner (such as Cherryleaf) or contractors working remotely, cloud computing means you can quickly and easily add them into your authoring environment.
  • If you want to work in a collaborative authoring environment, cloud-based applications typically enable you to do that.
  • If you use a third party company (such as Cherryleaf), you have the opportunity, at a later date, to log into the system and make any minor updates (following updated releases of your product) yourself.

Check in/out

You don’t necessarily need to move to a cloud-based environment, if you want to have remote workers and/or collaborative authoring. The most popular authoring tools, such as RoboHelp, FrameMaker and Flare, use a check in/out model instead of a cloud-based approach. Writers can “check out” a topic from a project and work on it remotely. They can then “check in” the completed topic back into the project, via email or SharePoint.

Your authors will all need to have the Help Authoring Tool on their computers, and you cannot watch them as they write, but it’s worth considering.

SaaS

If you’re looking for a SaaS authoring tool, then there are a number to consider:

  • DITA-based authoring applications and services, such as Doczone, DITAweb and Stilo Migrate
  • Help Authoring Tools, such as HelpConsole and Author-it Live
  • Wiki-based technical authoring applications, such as Mindtouch Cloud and Atlassian OnDemand
  • Word processors, such as Google Docs

You’re usually unable to add any additional plugins, which you’d be able to do if the software was installed on your computers or servers.

You may also need to consider where your data is actually being stored. Data privacy rules differ in the USA and the European Union –  the USA’s Patriot Act, for example.

Your own private cloud (VPN)

Some organisations simply add remote workers to their existing network. The organisation has its own private cloud, a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Typically, it’s up to the IT department as to whether a remote user will be given access to a system. You may need to acquire licences, and you may need to wait for IT to set this all up for you.

An alternative approach is to create a private cloud for your own department. You can create a server in the Cloud, using Amazon’s EC2 service, or using alternatives from companies such as RackSpace or Microsoft (Azure). On this server, you could install for example, a customised version of the Authoring application (containing all the plugins and macros you require), and provide remote workers with a web address, user name and password for them to log in. With VPN server prices starting at $20/month, it’s an affordable option.

If you decide to do this “under the radar” (i.e. don’t tell the IT department you’re setting up your own VPN), you need to make sure you’re conforming to your organisation’s IT security policy. Otherwise, you could be in trouble.

Are you writing in the Cloud?

The reasons for using cloud-based applications seem to be as valid in the Technical Publications department as in other departments. So it’s likely we’ll see a growth in the uptake of this type of service.

  • Are you writing in the Cloud? How have you tackled this problem?
  • Is writing in the Cloud a good idea?

We welcome your comments.

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.

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.

Turning employees’ knowledge into an asset for the organisation

In July 2010, Mark Prisk, UK Minister of State for Business and Enterprise said:

As the events of the past two years have made painfully clear, we must leave behind the over reliance on financial services and support a renewal in modern manufacturing, so we are able to grasp the huge opportunities of the low carbon age. The ideas, skills and innovations of manufacturers will be just as important to our economic future, as the mills and mines were in our past.

Ten years ago, you’d find many consultants raising the issue that an organisation’s ‘knowledge assets’ walk out the door every evening.

Today, that’s still pretty much the case.

Organisations found it was difficult to capture the knowledge locked in employees’ brains. Many invested in expensive systems that offered poor authoring environments and complex ontologies. Retrieving the recorded knowledge could be a dreadful user experience as well.

With the economic future of countries such as the UK being based partly on creating wealth from the ‘knowledge economy’ and Intellectual Property, and with the recent, exciting, developments in technology (such as the semantic web, screencasts, wikis and open source software) now is the ideal time to revisit the issue of how to capture, collaborate and disseminate knowledge within and without the organisation. For a business working in a difficult climate, it can be the equivalent of finding loose change down the back of the sofa.

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.