If your business ever has to stand in front of a judge..

Flickr photo: Kzap
Flickr photo: Kzap

If your business ever has to stand in front of a judge, you may regret believing the documentating of procedures didn’t matter.

When things go wrong, people ask “where’s it written down?” You’ll find them looking at what’s documented to see where the blame lies. 

If it’s not written down, or if it’s unclear, then the eyes will be on the person whose job it was to make sure all the procedures, policies and guidance documents were up to scratch.

Cherryleaf can help by giving you the skilled resources you need to write clear and unambiguous information, in a timely and efficient way.

Contact us to find out more.

Managing documentation projects – links to useful information

Here are some links to useful information on managing documentation projects:

Support Call Cost Reduction Calculator

Six biggest mistakes Project Managers make with documentation and how to avoid them

Planning user documentation – a guide for software project managers

How many technical writers should we have in our organisation?

In a downturn, is it better to use contractors, permanent staff or an outsourcing company?

Trends in technical and user documentation

Aligning documentation with the business – free guide

Free guide for Project Managers on planning documentation projects

Managing documentation projects

Project Management of documentation projects

Managing content

If you need any advice or assistance in developing user documentation, you should contact Cherryleaf.

Turning technical documentation into an emotional experience (for the customer)

One of the most recent trends organisations are starting to look at is creating a “customer experience strategy”. “Customer Experience Management” is management-speak for generating customer advocacy, brand loyalty and an emotional attachment to a product or company.

With so many people describing their experiences as customers via Social Web sites, Blogs and other media, it’s becoming increasingly important to ensure customers have a positive experience when they engage with your organisation.

Shaun Smith of Smith+Co, a specialist in this field, talks about the steps towards customer loyalty as being like a staircase:

Another player in this field, The Service and Support Professionals Association, has identified three critical components for creating customer loyalty:

  1. Bonding. They argue the quickest way to bond with a customer is to offer the right answer and a positive service experience, every time.
  2. Personalisation.
  3. Empowerment. Empowering customers means changing the way they receive support and freeing them from the burden of long, complex diagnostics.

According to Smith, this means organisations need to:

  • Discover what customers truly value
  • Lead, rather than simply manage and respond

To this end, Citrix is promoting its remote desktop software as a way of improving customers’ experiences when they engage with hotlines and support desks.

However, if we accept this extends to the other means by which customers seek help, then perhaps organisations should also consider user documentation when budgeting for and developing a customer experience strategy for your organisation. Perhaps, also Technical Authors should consider “Customer Experience Management” when developing the documentation.

The “risk challenge” for businesses emerging out of the recession

The fear of risk seems to be growing in significance within organisations. According to Intellect, the trade body for UK technology companies:

Operating risks have changed significantly as a result of prevailing economic conditions over the past 18 months. Companies have been under severe economic strain and are focused on adjusting to a drastically changed economic and regulatory environment.

While concentrating on revenue protection and cost reduction measures, companies have not recognised that their risk and impact profiles may have changed substantially while their resilience has deteriorated. 

Intellect states these changes have had a significant impact in a number of areas:

  • Political and corporate instability brought about by the economic downturn has brought with it heightened levels of operational risk for organisations
  • Organisations are required to process, store and secure rapidly increasing amounts of data, which itself poses a huge risk.
  • Outsourcing has been widely embraced as a way for businesses to streamline operations whilst maintaining levels of service
  • The ‘domino effect’ of supply chain problems means that every organisation is at risk from the recession, both in terms of financial performance and operational continuity.
  • Limited capital investment in many organisations has made ‘manual’ services more attractive to CFOs.

The ‘domino effect’ of supply chain means clients are expecting less risky solutions from their software and technology suppliers. Where a software vendor could adopt a “no documentation” or “less documentation” approach six months ago, this is becoming less acceptable to customers.

Indeed, Google has been criticised for only offering user forums to assist  Nexus One mobile phone users and for failing to provide decent user documentation with Google Wave.

There is also a greater need to document processes and procedures, in order to mimimise the risks listed above.

User documentation is in some ways comparable to insurance: sometimes seen as a grudge purchase and something that can be avoided … right up to the point with things start to go wrong.

However, one of the best ways to ensure problems are avoided, processes are followed correctly and issues are fixed is to write it down.

How checklists can save your life

Dr Atul Gawande is currently in London, touring the radio stations to promote his book “The Checklist Manifesto“. Dr Gawande is a surgeon in Boston Mass., who has been looking at how to deal with complexity in surgery and elsewhere.

He has discovered that complex systems work, mostly through people using checklists. Furthermore, no matter how expert you were, well-designed checklists could improve outcomes. So, with some assistance from Boeing, he developed a 90 second checklist (download it here)  that reduced surgical deaths and complications in eight hospitals around the world by more than 30%.

In the book, he shows how low-cost checklists actually work, why some make matters worse and why others make matters better. 

According to The Guardian, Dr Gawande argues that the right kind of checklist liberates rather than stifles professional intuition. A ­concise sumary of what might go wrong, and what to do if it does, galvanises groups of professionals into tighter teams. Indeed, one of the key factors, included in the checklist, was to introduce everyone in surgical team to each other: it leads to people having the confidence to speak up.

Michael Scriven, at Western Michigan University, author of a paper called The Logic and Methodology of Checklists commented,

Checklists have long been regarded as beneath the level of serious consideration by methodologists and others interested in the logic of the disciplines. But they are more sophisticated than they appear–and are perhaps the key methodology of those disciplines that really treat theory and practice as equals, e.g., surgery, engineering, neural and public economics, program and product evaluation.

For more on checklists, see:

Guidelines for Checklist Development and Assessment by Daniel Stufflebeam

The Ten Commandments, Constitutional Amendments, and Other Evaluation Checklists by Daniel Stufflebeam

Useability Evaluation Report for the Evaluation Checklist Project Web Site by Barbara Bichelmeyer

The Evaluation Checklist Project: The Inside Scoop on Content, Process, Policies, Impact, and Challenges by Lori Wingate

UK General Medical Council’s solution for reducing prescription errors? More usable, better designed forms

The BBC News today has a great example of the impact procedures documents and usable forms can have upon people’s lives. It reports the General Medical Council is is calling for a UK-wide standard prescription chart as the best way to reduce the 9% of hospital prescriptions that contain a mistake. Against common opinion, the study found it wasn’t  doctors fresh out of medical school who were making the most mistakes – the causes were mostly down to poor forms and bad handwriting.  

The chairman of the GMC, Professor Peter Rubin, said:

 “Prescribing decisions in a hospital setting often have to be made quickly, so it is important that a procedure is as simple as possible to minimise the chance of an error being made.

To avoid confusion as doctors move between hospitals with very different prescribing forms – including paper and electronic – the GMC wants to see a standardised system across the UK.

A Department of Health spokesman said it would continue to look into the benefits of electronic prescribing systems,

 “taking into account the evidence gained where standardisation of the paper chart has been successfully implemented.”

Dr Hamish Meldrum, of the doctors’ union, the BMA, said:

“It would certainly help if there was greater uniformity in the prescription forms used in the NHS and the BMA would encourage prescribing procedures to be kept as simple as possible.”

 It’s good to see recognition, in such an important area, of the value of good procedures writing and form design.

Training course on Twitter and the Social Web: Developing a strategy for technical authors

We’ve just relased a new training course that explains where the Social Web, and Twitter in particular, can fit into the world of the technical author/writer.

Originally delivered as a presentation for the prestigious User Assistance Europe Conference 2009, it has been extended and converted into a training course, containing videos and demonstrations of software applications, to help it all make sense.

You also get access to the full 37 minute, transatlantic video interview we recently conducted with Anne Gentle, author of “Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation”, where we talked about The Social Web for Documentation.

Can you design your way to a “no user documentation” approach?

Chris Edwards has written an article on product design in the E&T magazine called “The art of avoiding lemons“, in which he looks at whether there is more to product design than simply getting your design to look good or your product to work. He shows there are many situations where brilliantly designed products still fail.

Managing customer expectations

Edwards quotes findings from Elke den Ouden and colleagues at Eindhoven University of Technology and Philips Applied Technologies, who found that half of the consumer electronics products returned to stores worked just fine: the customers simply had not been able to figure out how to get them to operate properly.

According to den Ouden:

For businesses today, the main risk with respect to quality and reliability of new products is not just technical failures, but also failures of a non-technical nature, that is, complaints due to the product not meeting the consumer’s expectations.

He also cited findings from a 2006 report by consultant Sara Bly and a team from Intel Research and the University of Washington, called “Broken Expectations in the Digital Home“. This report listed:

A litany of failure by consumer-electronics vendors to provide products that did what the users wanted. And yet each product surveyed did, at least nominally, what it was designed to do.

Connectivity – A series of unfortunate events

In addition to the broken expectations also mentioned by den Ouden, Bly stated the reasons for these failings were partly due to users being unable to connect one device to another. This complexity issue has also been highlighted by research into how small to medium sized enterprises use IT. Dr Alan Rae’s “Abandoned Heroes” report stated similar findings, where a single individual in the business often had to rely on their own self-taught expertise and felt ill-equipped to carry out the implementation tasks required of them.

Meaningless dialog boxes and error messages

Edwards also claims that users can be stumped by error messages. He quotes Don Norman:

(Product designers) assume perfection, a smoothly operating ticket machine, always performing smoothly and efficiently.

If we also consider Rachel Potts’s article, “3 good reasons software will always need help“, where she argues users may need key concepts and context explained to them, then we may come to understand why dialog boxes such as the one below may need some explaining:

No amount of good design will help you understand a “wiggle factor of 4”, if you have no understanding of the concept of “wiggle factors”.

Different users on the Rogers Technology Adoption Lifecycle Curve will have differing requirements

At last week’s UA Conference Europe 09, IBM’s Mike Hughes made the great point that the adoption of technology over time will have an impact on the effectiveness on your design.

He said that different types of users will have different expectations and needs for documentation. Sometimes, all you need to tell users what is a good choice. At other times, you need to explain how to do things, step by step.

My thoughts

For simple, commonly known actions in a closed environment, you probably can design your way to a “no user documentation” approach. Good design can also lead to less documentation. However, customers may expect to do more than that with a product and, in those situations, documentation can play a key role in meeting those expectations.