Changing times in technical communication

Deepak Chopra quotation Flickr image  Celestine ChuaWe’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 previous years, most documentation managers have effectively been saying to us their organisations weren’t really clear about the value of documentation. As the Technical Publications team usually amounts to less than 5% of the IT budget, the successful companies have, in the past, not worried about this and left the documentation team to work out for themselves what they should be doing. However, for organisations that have been watching every percent in the budget, they’ve reduced the spend on technical documentation to the bare minimum. Of course, in a recession that’s been quite a few companies.

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Proving your technical content is the most important content on your website

In yesterday’s post, How technical content on the Web is turning traditional marketing strategy on its head, we discussed the importance of technical content to today’s marketing funnel. You might be thinking, show me more evidence.

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How technical content on the Web is turning traditional marketing strategy on its head

Kathy Sierra famously summed up most marketing departments’ approach to content in this slide:
kathy sierra - How we treat customers

To paraphrase her, the website and brochure are a thing of beauty, while the user manual is a thing of boredom.

Today, the way people use the Internet means this approach to marketing needs to change

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Hyundai uses an iPad as a driver’s manual

According to Hyundai USA

There’s nothing worse than buying a new luxury car only to sit down and have to learn about it through a boring owner’s manual. Thankfully, every Equus comes with a 16GB WiFi Apple iPad, and instead of the boring owner’s manual, the Equus Owner’s Experience app teaches you everything you need to know through demonstration videos, interactive product and safety demonstrations.

Hopefully, you won’t ever need it when you have a flat battery.

Where does your Help sit on the technology adoption curve?

The technology adoption lifecycle model is a popular model for describing how products rise and fall in popularity over time. Many organisations use it to help them plan their position in the marketplace, as few can spread themselves successfully across the whole of the market.

If we look at the technology adoption curve for the different forms of User Assistance (UA), what would we put in each of the different stages? Additionally, what does this mean for the people producing it?

The four quadrant “wheel of sales” adaptation of this model, developed by Jeff Cox and Howard Stevens, is useful way to categorise these sectors:

Stage 1 – Birth

  • This is for organisations  who want to be first, who have bought into a dream, and who like being revolutionary.
  • The technology is new and revolutionary, yet primitive. Products are capable of only a few basic tasks. The appeal and value is limited, but if it is successful it will give its users a real advantage.

Which UA technologies fit into this stage: Augmented Reality, game-based Help and DITA, perhaps?

Stage 2 – Fast growth

  • This is for organisations who want a state-of-the-art solution. They want better performance and are willing to pay to get that.
  • The technology advances, often dramatically and in big jumps. These advancements increase the options and complexity. Implementation is often tailored to each situation. The technology still has many sceptics.

Which UA technologies fit into this stage: DITA, Affective Writing techniques, AirHelp, User Generated Content and Web 2.0 based Help, perhaps?

Stage 3 – Incremental Growth

  • This is for organisations who want a reliable, accepted product, and may want some adjustments to fit their situation. They have experience of using the technology and have definite opinions about what they need.
  • The technology is accepted by the majority and is in widespread use. Although it continues to advance, improvements come in small steps. Products become feature-rich.

Which UA technologies fit into this stage: Web-based online Help, collaboratively authored Help, adaptive Help and screencasts, perhaps?

Stage 4 – Maturity

  • This is for organisations who want a standard product at a great price. The want no hassle and a quick result.
  • The technology is standardised and has near-universal acceptance. Advancements are few and far between, and may be resisted.
  • The products are simplified, commoditised and the technology is frozen.

Which UA technologies fit into this stage: Windows-based Help, PDF manuals and FAQs, perhaps?

What does this mean for the people producing online Help?

If your interest lies in creating state-of-the-art solutions and you’re working for a company that wants basic online Help for the lowest cost, then there’s going to be some tension. If the organisation is creating something revolutionary, then perhaps so should the User Assistance. If an organisation is in stage three, then perhaps the User Assistance can give them an incremental edge over the competition.

Do you agree with those categorisations?

What have we missed? Let us know what you think.

Using the Wheel – a story

This is an adapted version of a story from Selling the Wheel, by Jeff Cox:

Once upon a time, long ago, a resourceful fellow named Max came up with a brilliant idea and invented the Wheel. He said to his wife, ‘you know what, the Wheel is going to make us lots of money’.

His wife replied, ‘it seems to me that if we’re going to get rich, you’re going to have to go out out and get people to buy and use these Wheels of yours’.

‘My dear wife, the Wheel is is a brilliant invention! One does not have to sell brilliant inventions; they sell themselves. One does not have to instruct people how to use brilliant inventions; they are so intuitive, anyone can use them.’

Can you guess how the story progresses?

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.