Are we driving or being driven?

On my first or second day in my new technical writing job my manager told me, “The CS [customer support] guys have put together a ‘cheat sheet’ for setting up hardware redundancy. They’d just started working with Pat [my predecessor] to get it published as a user guide.”


Image source: Scriptorium

I looked at the cheat sheet: a 40-page Word file describing what works with what (and what doesn’t), the basic setup process, and several “gotchas” to watch out for. Good, useful stuff. Yeah, our customers would like to have this. I can massage it into a user guide.

But when I investigated further, I found a surprise: about half of the cheat sheet consisted of content already in the product documentation. The CS guys were surprised when I pointed that out to them.

So now we have two things going on: the organization has good information that it wants to deliver to its customers. At the same time we’re already delivering good information, but people don’t know it’s there.

My situation exemplifies two of Scriptorium’s Six Trends of 2016 — two trends that at first sound contradictory but actually are closely related in yin-and-yang fashion.

Trend 1: Non-content groups driving content improvements. The idea for publishing the hardware-redundancy content originated with our CS team, not within Tech Pubs. The fact that the CS team chose to recommend this, rather than simply posting its cheat sheet on a user group somewhere, shows that they recognize the value of making customer-facing documentation as useful and relevant as possible.

Trend 2: Content creator-driven strategies. In other words, improvements being driven by Tech Pubs. Increasingly, we design and create our content with a strategy in mind. Ideally the strategy integrates all of the customer-facing content — documentation, web pages, user groups, marketing collateral — into a unified whole that, again, is useful and relevant to customers.

It’s because Tech Pubs is pursuing these strategic initiatives (Trend 2) that other parts of the organization, like CS, have begun to recognize that the documentation has value (Trend 1). In the old days Tech Pubs simply maintained the status quo and no one else paid attention. (I know I’m overgeneralizing here, but I don’t think I’m off by much.)

Today we, Tech Pubs, have gotten better at innovating. That’s good, because if we weren’t innovating the other parts of the organization, like CS, would be innovating for us. Deciding what content the customers need. Publishing it through back channels. The customers would see a disjointed babble: pieces of content overlapping, other pieces missing, inconsistent style and presentation.

So where does that leave us?

Trend 1: The other parts of the organization are interested in what we do.

Trend 2: Let’s take the lead, thinking and acting strategically while enlisting the other parts of the organization as partners.

What do you think? Do you see these two trends where you work? How can we think and act strategically in a way that best serves our customers?

10 thoughts on “Are we driving or being driven?

  1. Mark Baker

    “Ideally the strategy integrates all of the customer-facing content — documentation, web pages, user groups, marketing collateral — into a unified whole that, again, is useful and relevant to customers.”

    So picking up on the conversation about stories and how they are related: This scale of integration of information is vastly beyond anything we would ever have contemplated doing in the book world. In fact, in the book world that duplications would have been entirely appropriate because the priority for each book would have been to serve its purpose in isolation, not to integrate with every other book of paper the company issued. (Reuse strategies are in many ways about doing that duplication more efficiently, not creating a unified whole.)

    So how do you unify that much content in a way that is actually navigable and discoverable? Do you glom it all into one massive Frankenbook? No one is going to attempt to navigate that in any way except by search. And then how do you navigate from the page that you found to the pages with the related stories that you need?

    In the book world, we attempted to find the best linearization of stories to meet most readers needs. That never worked perfectly, but it was OK at the level of three or four hundred pages. But it does not scale to the integration of all your customer facing content. The relationship are to numerous, to various, and too eccentric. No one is going to climb the hierarchy of a Frankenbook every time they want to access a different story.

    The only way you make this much content navigable to the casual reader is through hypertext.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      When I say “unified whole” I don’t mean a Frankenbook. I mean a set of content pieces, each one adaptable to fit the particular reader’s situation, each one looking like it came from the same corporate entity (voice, branding, etc.), and all collectively supplying all of the information the community of readers might need. Hypertext, yes, would be the primary means of connecting the pieces to the readers and to each other.

      Building such a unified set of content is a challenge. But we (the content creators) must figure out how to do it, or least approximate it. If we don’t, the non-content groups will try — and the results probably won’t be as good.

      1. Mark Baker

        Okay, good, I think we are on more or less the same page. Not so sure that we have to own it all though. Non-content groups are often closer to the subject or closer to the audience, and therefore in a better position to say the right things, but less skilled in expressing them or organizing their thoughts. I think we can do a lot to help them in those areas without actually pulling those functions back into our domain.

  2. ClickHelp Team

    I would say that the trend is to merge Customer Support and Technical Documentation into one organization, where each group contributes accordingly. We are seeing that Customer Support creates user manuals very often, and sometimes becomes the only technical content generation Team in the company. Makes sense – these are the people who explain things to clients every day; they see which explanations work and which don’t. So, I would say that technical writers and support engineers must collaborate closely to create good user-oriented documentation, and this is the trend. Thoughts?

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks for your comment. I definitely agree that Customer Support and Tech Pubs should be collaborating. Collaboration is a win-win for both. I’d stop short, however, of merging the two organizations because they have different missions. The mission of Customer Support is pretty much summed up in its name. Tech Pubs, however, has a role to play in the organization’s overall content strategy. Rather than fixing things, its mission is communicating.

      1. ClickHelp Team

        Depends on the company though. In many companies, the content strategy is defined by Marketing whether we like it or not 🙂 They define what blogs to post, what to talk about on the web site and in the company news, etc. Tech Comm team is often isolated from those tasks and helps only occasionally. Would you agree, based on your experience, that this is a wide-spread practice?
        The role of the Tech Writing Team becomes more specialized, more technical, more focused on the technical content in KBs, FAQs, user manuals, HowTos, Samples, etc. – very similar to what Technical Support is doing as well in many companies.

    2. Larry Kunz Post author

      Yes, I agree that the content strategy (if there even is one) is very often owned by the Marketing department. And I agree that Tech Comm is often isolated from that. I’m saying that we shouldn’t accept resign ourselves to being isolated from Marketing, and from the content strategy. We have so much to offer — in terms of things like knowing our audience and knowing the principles of effective communication — that we should team up with Marketing and influence the content strategy. We should team up with Tech Support, too, but that isn’t the only collaboration we should be seeking.

      1. ClickHelp Team

        Makes sense Larry! I always said that technical content is one of the best marketing and SEO resources – relevant, clear, keyword-rich. That’s why more and more companies publish user manuals online to make the searchable.
        Have you seen real examples of effective Marketing-TechComm collaboration?

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