This is a summary of The Content Wrangler 2012 Technical Communication Industry Benchmarking Survey, an informal, web-based survey that compared responses from over 500 companies from countries around the globe. The results are not scientific, but do provide us with meaningful data points and help us spot trends.

For instance, one major trend we noticed is the adoption of structured XML content (44% of companies surveyed create XML content; 81% of those firms use DITA; 30% use custom DTDs; 16% use DocBook). The results of our research indicate that innovation is driven by complexity. The more complex the product, the more variables, the more configuration is required, the more likely advanced information development practices are in use by technical communicators and training professionals.

The Respondents

We did not attempt to capture data from the entire technical communication industry. Consultants, contractors, members of small technical documentation teams, educators, vendors, and those who did not meet our survey criteria, were allowed to complete the survey, but are not included in these results. Instead, we focused our efforts on presenting data from large, content-heavy enterprises with technical documentation and training departments. Most of these organizations employ several dozen to several hundred technical communication professionals; some employ 500 or more technical communicators. They also tend to adopt advanced information development practices that help move the field of communication forward.

The majority of survey respondents work for firms in the computer software and hardware sector (63%), followed by the financial services sector (9%), life sciences and healthcare (9%) , telecommunication (5%), publishing and media (3%) and others.

In addition to the data we share here, we contacted a sampling of the respondents for followup telephone interviews. We will share some of the stories, best practices, and lessons learned from these conversations in the near future.

A sampling of the questions…

1. What is your biggest documentation and training content challenge?

Our benchmarking survey uncovered a wide variety of challenges facing companies that produce technical documentation and training content. The biggest challenge identified was the lack of a formal content strategy.

Commonly cited symptoms of organizations lacking a content strategy include:

  • Inability to effectively reuse content
  • Creation of inconsistent, inaccurate, or mediocre quality content
  • Producing content of unknown customer value
  • Process problems and production bottlenecks

The next biggest challenges:

  • Lack of governance
  • Lack of time, money and resources

2. Do you utilize an agile development process to create documentation and training content?

The majority of technical documentation and training departments have not adopted an agile approach to creating and publishing content. Agile methods are based on iterative and incremental cycles that promote adaptive planning, evolutionary development, and flexible responses to change.

While 45% of companies surveyed claim to apply agile development principles to technical communication projects, few do it successfully. Typical challenges include:

  • Organizational silos
  • Lack of governance
  • Differing approaches

The waterfall development method is still the dominant approach in use today.

3. What innovations are you planning for the future of your documentation and training content?

  1. Moving to topic-based content models like the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) was the most common innovation planned for the future (21%)
  2. The adoption of a component content management system was the second most common innovation planned for the future (14%)
  3. Creating video documentation and training content is the third most common innovation planned for the future (11%)

4. Do you reuse documentation and training content?

85% of respondents reuse content; 5% have done so to “innovate” or “respond” to threats or opportunities quickly.

5. What are the drawbacks of content reuse?

  • Writing challenges (30%)
  • Upfront investment (25%)
  • Governance (22%)
  • Quality assurance (20%)
  • Sharing conflicts (17%)
  • Change management (12%)
  • Difficulty finding reusable elements (11%)

6. What are the benefits of content reuse?

  • Increased consistency (30%)
  • Ease of maintenance and updating (25%)
  • Lower total cost (24%)
  • Reduce localization cost (12%)

7. Do you provide your customers with access to an online support forum or online community?

Companies are finding interesting ways to leverage the power of the crowd to help them create, update, and improve documentation and training content. 53% of companies provide customers with access to an online support forum or online community.

8. Who is responsible for monitoring your online support forum or community?

  • 32% of companies rely on their customer service or technical support staff to monitor online support forums and online communities
  • 20% of companies distribute responsibility across multiple roles (marketing, support, customer service, technical communication, training,and subject matter experts
  • 10% of companies employ a dedicated community manager to monitor online support forums

9. Do you allow customers to edit documentation and training content?

20% of companies allow their customers to edit documentation and training content. Many of these firms use wiki-based tools that provide customers with web-based editing capability. Edits usually undergo a review and approval process, although 8% of firms allow “trusted” customers to edit and publish corrections without formal review.

10. Do you allow customers to create documentation and training content?

17% of companies today allow customers to create documentation and training content. More than one-third of those companies encourage customers to do so.

The reasons for not allowing customers to create content are usually related to concerns about:

  • Quality (30%)
  • Liability and regulatory compliance concerns (22%)
  • Lack of management support (18%)>/li>
  • Lack of proper infrastructure and/or technology (18%)

Interestingly, about 10% of companies say their customers are creating documentation and training (and publishing them online) without their approval.

11. Do you provide customers with a mechanism that allows them to rate documentation and training content?

46% of companies provide ways for customers to share feedback and/or rate their documentation and training content.

While the mechanisms put in place to help customers provide feedback about documentation and training content vary widely — from old school approaches like surveys and interviews to newer methods like blog comments and Facebook-style “likes” — organizations that use reactions from customers to improve content quality say they are looking for ways to gather immediate feedback. They’re also looking for ways to put that feedback to good use.

Companies that do it well enjoy many benefits, the most valuable include:

  • Improved customer support scores (47%)
  • Improved content quality (17%)
  • Support call deflection (16%)
  • Reduced support call volume (13%)
  • Reduced average call handling time (12%)

Additional improvements include: spotting problems with product design, spotting process problems, as well as a reduction in negative feedback and complaints.

12. What mechanisms do you provide your customers to communicate with the authors of documentation and training content.

  • Call center feedback (63%)
  • Customer surveys (60%)
  • Online forums (42%)
  • Customer interviews (40%)
  • Online ratings (30%)

13. What software tools do you use to create, manage and deliver documentation and training content?

Note: We asked respondents to type the names of products they use (e.g. brand name authoring tools, screen capture, video simulation software and other software tools they use to create, manage and deliver information) and did not provide them a list of tools to choose from.

As it turns out, technical communication and training departments use a wide variety of tools to get the job done. Software varies based on the type of work performed and the industry sector served. The top ten most common tools are manufactured by four companies (see list below). Adobe leads the pack with five of the top ten tools. Microsoft and TechSmith have two tools each on the list; JustSystems has one.

Adobe FrameMaker is most used

Companies that create technical documentation are most likely to do so with the help of Adobe FrameMaker (41%). As far as authoring tools go, FrameMaker is used more than Microsoft Word (35%) and XMetaL Author (11%).

Snagit captures the second spot

TechSmith Snagit proves to be the second most popular tool used by technical communication and training pros. 35% of companies that produce technical documentation and training have it in their tool chest.

Microsoft is still in the mix

Microsoft Word is the third most used software product. 35% of companies use Word — often along side other authoring tools. Its Office-mate and code-sharing cousin, Microsoft PowerPoint also holds a spot in the top ten with 11% of companies using the software for training and other purposes.

Adobe is the dominant force

28% of companies surveyed use Acrobat Pro to create documentation and training deliverables, making it the fourth most commonly used tool. Adobe also holds the fifth spot with Adobe Captivate — the most often used screen recording tool (20%) — and the sixth spot with online help mainstay, Adobe RoboHelp.

The top 10

  1. Adobe FrameMaker (41%)
  2. TechSmith Snagit (35%)
  3. Microsoft Word (35%)
  4. Adobe Acrobat Professional (28%)
  5. Adobe Captivate (20%)
  6. Adobe RoboHelp (19%)
  7. TechSmith Camtasia (12%)
  8. XMetaL Author (11%)
  9. Microsoft PowerPoint (11%)
  10. Adobe Photoshop (11%)

The most often used content management systems

  1. SDL LiveContent
  2. Vasont
  3. Astoria
  4. BlueStream XDocs
  5. RSI DocZone

A copy of The Content Wrangler Technical Communication Industry Benchmarking Survey Results Summary is included below for your convenience. Feel free to cite it, share it, use it to benchmark where your organization is compared to others.


Technical Communication Industry Benchmarking Survey 2012 by Scott Abel