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Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler

by Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler

The field of technical communication is going through a period of significant change. Several of these changes are challenging traditional ideas about the role of technical communication — and technical communicators — something that makes the change-adverse in our industry nervous, to say the least. But, like it or not, change is taking place all around us. It’s time we admit this fact and make changes in the way we do things in order to preserve our value to the organizations that hire us.

At the Adobe Enterprise Technical Communication Summits (here and here) late last year, I was asked to deliver the keynote address. Instead of focusing on DITA topics, video documentation, or EPUB (eBook) files, some of the many useful content types the Adobe Technical Communication Suite helps TechCommers create, I decided to focus on the real problem. We allow our traditions to get in the way of our advancement.

The way I see it, the “we’ve always done it that way here” approach to creating documentation and training materials is preventing us from getting the right information, to the right people, at the right time, in the right language, on the device of our customers’ choosing. Our outdated ways prevent us from demonstrating our true value to others — leading to TechComm being thought of as an expensive necessary evil, a cost center with little value, at least when compared to marketing and sales content.

This limited view of TechComm also decreases our perceived value as professionals and leads to the belief among some that we are easily replaced by cheaper alternatives. After all, if those who pay our wages believe all we do is write in our native language, why wouldn’t they search for a better value for their content development budget — a cheaper alternative labor force that is perceived to possess many of the same skills?

While some purists dismiss the notion that our skills can be commoditized (or that the same skills can be obtained overseas) the proof is in the outsourcing of projects to less expensive ‘writers’ in far away places. If that’s not evidence enough that we have a perception problem, just ask one of the thousands of under- and unemployed technical writers if their mastery of the English language, proper semi-colon usage, and style guide development skills has protected them from being replaced.

It should be noted that some outsourced TechComm projects have failed to deliver cost savings (for a wide variety of reasons I lack sufficient space to address here), I believe that over time that will change. Off-shore writing groups will get better. They will learn to improve their service offerings and streamline their operations. They will learn our lingo, our style, our way of working and they’ll do their best to blend in — at a lower cost than we currently charge today. And, because they also have access to the same information we do, they will see the value of adopting new-and-improved ways of creating, managing and delivering information. In fact, some of them are likely reading this column right now.

While I’ll leave the commoditization of TechComm argument for another day, the perception that we can be replaced is a real problem we can no longer afford to avoid discussing. Let’s admit it. We’ve got a perception problem. Second, let’s admit it is mostly our own fault. We’ve not taken an active role in marketing our value, relying instead on the old school notion that we’re needed and cannot be replaced. Even when we do make a piecemeal effort to communicate our value, we mistakenly focus on the value of the profession and our ability to create deliverables, instead of on our ability to help organizations meet specific business goals. In a global economy, this means helping our organizations do two things: save money and make sales.

Saving money is accomplished by scrutinizing the way we work and admitting that we are not as efficient or as effective as we should be. Honest scrutiny will uncover all sorts of unnecessary costs and will allow us to streamline manual processes that slow things down, most often through automation.

Making money is accomplished by finding ways to help our organizations increase sales. Content drives sales (just ask marketing and advertising pros), but we as a profession have not realized the true value of the user assistance content we create and its ability to increase profits.

As a profession, we need to get over our outdated (and very limited) view of ourselves as technical writers. We need to build a better, longer-lasting business case for ourselves as content manufacturing specialists. To support our new value proposition, we need to expand our advanced arsenal of tools and skill sets, especially ones that are difficult to duplicate. We must strive to demonstrate our true value to the organizations we serve by focusing attention on overlooked areas for improvement — process efficiency through streamlined workflow, automation of manual tasks that computers are better equipped to perform, and the development of metrics-based content manufacturing decisions that can be tied to business goals. In short, we need to be more concerned with content strategy (how we utilize finite organization resources to accomplish organizational goals) than we are today.

We need to focus on our role as content experts, not writers. We need to showcase our advanced information creation, management and delivery tactics gained from decades of having to do increasingly more work with fewer resources. And we need to highlight the value our strategic thinking can provide to organizations looking to save money and earn additional revenue.

Need some examples? You needn’t look very far. Every single industry event (like this one) is loaded with case studies, best practice sessions and workshops designed to demystify innovative ways of improving how we do what we do in an effort to save time and money. Most often, to accomplish these goals, organizations adopt structured information standards (think XML, DITA) and use component content management systems to help them dynamically deliver documentation to those who need it, when and where they need it, increasingly, on a wide variety of mobile devices.

Others are socializing their product documentation, pushing it to web-based communities where customers can interact with it, augment it, improve it, comment on it, and share it. In some situations, customers are actually encouraged to create it.

Still others are getting rid of traditional forms of documentation altogether, or drastically minimizing its footprint, opting to create engaging, interactive customer experiences by leveraging photographs, 3d models, ‘infographics’, augmented reality, video simulations and other rich media. And, they’re delivering this digital content in eBooks, in apps, and via the interactive, social, increasingly mobile web.

While most case studies focus on cost savings, some organizations are finding documentation and user support materials can provide other benefits. As it turns out, organizations showcase quality technical support content on the web, in the way that Autodesk and ExactTarget do, they can actually drive sales. That’s right. The content historically provided to customers AFTER they purchase a product or service is actually being used to attract new customers.

No, I’m not talking about putting a 700-page PDF on the web so prospective customers can download it — that’s so 1999. I’m talking about designing your content so it serves the most common needs of customers — when and when they need it — by providing them with answers to their questions. Not answers to questions you think they might have (think about the process of creating ‘frequently asked questions’), but answers to questions they actually have, using language they actually use, not the marketing mumbo jumbo and technical jargon we invent inside our corporate walled gardens and expect our customers to adopt as their own.

Not only do customers increasingly use the web to research products before they make a purchase decision, they also rely heavily on the recommendations and opinions of others, much more so than they do official marketing and advertising generated by organizations. And yet, most product information, especially technical documentation and support content is stored in silos (online help in product, support content in the knowledge center, marketing on the product website, training on a customers only extranet), sometimes behind password-protected fortresses. Except in situations where support content actually is a secret (think military, defense departments, etc.) putting quality content out for all to see can actually provide prospective customers with insight into your product, uncover features not selected for promotion by the marketing team, and perhaps give you a leg up over the competition.

To make this happen, documentation managers must go on the offensive. They must fight to shine a light on the problem areas and communicate the many benefits, especially financial ones, possible when we change the way we do things. It’s our job to fight for a unified customer experience, one where all of the content made available to them is created, managed and delivered in the same ways, using the same terminology. It’s our job to challenge our organizations to think differently and to test new approaches, measuring successes as well as failures, and adjusting our approaches as needed.