Conversation’s dirty little secrets

At a number of technical communication conferences recently, there has been a lot of talk about how conversation and collaboration will play a key role in the future of technical documentation. It’s a subject we’ve talked about extensively on this Blog.

The presenters paint this image of the future:

  • Writers and content creators are witnesses to a shift from the age of information to the age of expert/amateur interaction. The community will interact with you and their peers, which will influence further development of the formal documentation.
  • Technical Communicators can lead the next generation of information providers into this new era.
  • Technical authors will be editing other people’s content as much as writing their own.
  • The content will be the most viewed content of all the literature your organisation produces, and it will be seen as vital contributor to the organisation’s success.

This, they paint as “a Good Thing”. In general, it is.


However, earlier this week, I met up with a Documentation Manager of an Open Source application, already working in such an environment, who was facing some significant problems:

  • Users were struggling to find information they wanted.
  • The wiki-based user community platform was incomplete, out-of-date and incorrect in places.
  • The content was the most viewed content of all the literature her company produced, but no-one wanted to take responsibility to manage the content.
  • The Documentation team did not “own” the community content, but whenever there was an issue, they were asked to fix it.
  • Users saw it as official information, but the organisation saw it as unofficial information.
  • She didn’t want to spend her or her team’s precious time editing user content at the expense of writing new official content.
  • They had a continual battle with content spam.
  • It was hard to migrate content between the formal and informal documentation sets.

The problem with conversational content

The truth is, content and collaboration has some dirty little secrets:

  • If you pick the wrong technological platform, or if it is designed without any strategy or planning, then you can easily end up with poor, out-of-date and incomplete content that Google will expose high in its list of results.
  • Most community based platforms, such as wikis, rely heavily on Search as the method for finding information. If the platform has a poor search function, which is the case with many wikis, then users will struggle.
  • Someone will need to edit the content. If you don’t fancy correcting other people’s content and adding links, then consider finding someone who does (Cherryleaf can help).
  • Someone will need to take responsibility for the platform and content therein, and they will need the budget and resources to do this (or very good bartering skills).
  • If you are not careful, these communities can challenge your ability to single source and re-use content, and you may have even more content sources to manage than you do today.

It’s really important, therefore to:

  1. Pick the right technological platform. Even consider “left field” ideas such as using a Help authoring tool with the ability for users to add comments at the bottom.
  2. Have a content strategy. Know which content goes where and how it will be managed. Failing to plan is planning to fail.
  3. Have a clear purpose for each platform, who owns it, funds it and manages it.


Anne Gentle

Nice post. As you know, I have found similar stories while researching my book. Another strategy to consider when moving towards new platforms for user assistance is a plan for version control. Search strategy is also crucial to success as you point out.

I have seen that conversational content is the “most viewed” content in two very different contexts (one corporate, one open source project). I hope that type of data helps people recognize the power of community content and community support. Thanks for bringing this information forward and discussing the “dirty secrets.” 🙂

Larry Kunz

Thanks, Ellis. These are good insights. You’ve made a persuasive case that good content strategy is paramount as we move forward.

You mentioned the likelihood of “poor, out-of-date and incomplete content” being exposed in searches. A content strategist can do a lot to organize the information, fit it to the audience, and get it onto the right technology platform. But the strategist will need to pay special attention to SEO, which continues to evolve and thus presents a moving target. I’d like to see more written about how strategies for dealing with this.


A common approach is to keep the old site as an archive and to move users over to a new improved platform, using a robots.txt file to tell the Search Engines to ignore the old site and only search the new one.

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