The best KPIs support your tech comm strategy

The best Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in tech comm are aligned to measure the success of your documentation strategy.

That’s some advance insight I got from Rachel Potts who will run a workshop about “Developing KPIs” for tech comm at TCUK in Bristol in a few weeks.

Measuring performance

KPIs are “a type of performance measurement to evaluate success… often success is simply the repeated, periodic achievement of some level of operational goal (e.g. zero defects, 10/10 customer satisfaction, etc.). Accordingly, choosing the right KPIs relies upon a good understanding of what is important to the organization.” (Wikipedia, “Performance indicator“)

But KPIs can be tricky! Says Business Administration professor H. Thomas Johnson: “Perhaps what you measure is what you get. More likely, what you measure is all you get. What you don’t (or can’t) measure is lost.” (Quoted and explained in a Lean Thinker blog post)

KPIs in tech comm

Some KPIs in tech comm are also deceptive. To pick a glaring example, measuring grammatical and spelling errors per page is comparatively easy and will probably help to reduce that figure. But one very fast way to improve this KPI is by changing the page layout, so there’s less text per page. Fewer words and more pages lead to fewer mistakes per page – without correcting a single word. Also, the measure won’t improve documentation that’s out of date or incomplete or incomprehensible.

Rachel advised me: “It depends on strategy and purpose: What’s right for one team is completely wrong for another. Measuring errors on the page is only a valuable KPI if the number of errors on a page relates closely to the purpose of your documentation. If there is a close relationship, then that’s a useful KPI!”

Strategic KPIs

So what would be alternative KPIs, depending on particular tech comm strategies?

If your strategy is to make customer support more cost-effective, you can measure (expensive) support calls against (cheaper, self-service) documentation traffic, while trying to align your documentation topics, so they can effectively answer support questions.

If your strategy is to improve your net promoter score and customer retention, you can measure users’ search terms for documentation, number of clicks and visit time per page, while trying to optimize content for findability and relevance to users’ search terms.

If your strategy is to improve content reuse and topic maintenance, you can measure redundant content to drive down the number of topics that have mixed topic-type content:

  • As long as you still have abundant conceptual information in task topics, you probably have redundant content. (Though a couple of sentences for context can be acceptable and helpful!)
  • As long as you have window and field help reference information in task or concept topics, you propbably have redundant content.

What do you think? What KPIS are helpful? Which are you using, if any?

Join us for a tech comm intro MOOC by STC

This fall, the STC will run a free 5-week MOOC to allow everybody online to explore the field of technical communications – and I’m excited to be teaching the introductory module!

The full syllabus

The MOOC will highlight the roles and responsibilities of technical communication professionals through 5 specializations in 5 weekly modules, starting on 30 September:

  1. Introduction to technical communication, by myself
  2. Content development and delivery, by Bernard Aschwanden
  3. Content strategy and lifecycle, by Mollye Barrett
  4. Instructional design, by Dana West and Phylise Banner
  5. Usability and user assistance, by Ray Gallon and David Farbey

The introductory module

My module in the first week will serve as a general introduction to the field of technical communication.

What will you learn?

After the module, you should be able to

  • Define purpose, benefits and tasks of technical communication
  • Argue the value of technical communication for companies and clients
  • Describe the daily job and career of a technical communicator
  • Identify the elements of effective technical communication
  • Describe and develop basic core skills of a technical communicator

What do you do?

Your week will start with some assigned texts and videos to introduce the topics.

You will see how all the pieces fit together in an online lesson on Wednesday afternoon (US time). The outline will be the same as for the readings; it looks something like this:

  1. What is technical communication? – Definitions and trends
    • A changing definition, from technical writing to business problem-solving
    • Recent trends (mobile and embedded help, social media and user-generated content)
  2. Why have technical communication? – Benefits and business cases
    • How technical communication benefits users and companies and products
    • What only technical communication can do (USPs)
  3. Who is a technical communicator? – Tasks and career
    • A day in the life
    • Personality and aptitudes
    • A versatile career path
  4. How does a technical communicator work? – Skills and expertise
    • Know your audience through audience analysis and personas
    • Learn from subject-matter experts by research and collaboration
    • Write task-oriented topics using task analysis and modular topic types
    • Edit modular documentation for content and language

You will have a chance to try your hand on technical communications in a couple of learning activities (a/k/a assignments) around creating and editing documentation.

Oof, that’s a lot, no?

Well, yes and no. Yes, it is a wide area, but the purpose is to give you a taste of our versatile profession! I’ll start with the larger picture to illustrate the value of tech comm and how it can be cool and profitable, before diving into a few core skills in depth. The four later modules can afford to be a little more focused.

More information

More information will be available shortly on the web sites of STC which is sponsoring this MOOC and on CourseSites which is furnishing the platform for it.

In the meantime, check out Mollye Barrett talking about the MOOC and her module in a 1:30 video.

What do you think?

Would this be interesting to participate in? What other topics would you expect to see covered in the intro module? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see if I can address your opints, either in the comments or in the MOOC module itself!

English articles for non-native speakers

A few simple rules can help non-native speakers get English articles such as the, a, and an right.

Some documentation I get to edit is written by tech writers whose native language doesn’t have articles. Their grasp on the subject at hand is as good as any colleagues’, and most of their grammar and spelling is fine, but articles the and a and an give them a hard time.

So I’ve put together a few rules which are easy to memorize and help writers get articles right most of the time. Judging from my colleagues’ writing, they work… 🙂

The definite article the

Use the to refer to one or several specific, individual things. For example:

  • “Open the package by pulling on the lid.”
  • “To close the windows, click the Close button.”
  • “To save the changes, select the File > Save option.”
  • “‘Automatic’ is the only valid setting in this situation.”

The indefinite articles a and an

Use a or an to refer to one unspecific, countable thing. For example:

  • “You need a router and a network cable before you can connect your computer to the Internet.”
  • “To visit web sites, use a web browser, such as Mozilla Firefox, Chrome or Internet Explorer.”

Use a or an to refer to one particular example of something, often with a descriptive adjective. For example:

  • “C# is an object-oriented programming language.”
  • “PGP is a safe way to encrypt e-mails.”

No article

Use no article when the number of things cannot be counted or does not matter. For example:

  • “Many users worry about privacy and online security.”
  • Computers and netbooks are often equipped with WLAN cards.”

Additional advice

These rules are not 100% complete or error-proof, but they cover most of the scenarios you will encounter.

For additional rules and examples, I recommend these websites:

Easiest way to add video to your tech comm

A very cheap and easy way to add video – or more honestly: almost video – to your documentation is to use animated gifs. In less formal, less complex settings, that can be totally sufficient.

For example, a translator asked us for the list of Flare topics that correspond to the table of contents. And I want to show other writers how to get such a list out of Flare. It’s a couple of clicks in the TOC editor which can easily be illustrated in an animated gif:

How to export a list of topic names and files names from Flare's table of contents

The gif above was created using the freeware LICECap which records screen movements and mouse-clicks. The 30-second “video” took 5 minutes to throw together, it’s 407 KB large and displays in any web browser without any codecs.

It’s certainly not the most professional way ever devised and there are no use controls whatsoever – but if you just need to illustrate a few clicks, this will let you get the job done quickly and for free!

Oh, and if you’re using Flare, you might have picked up a trick for the TOC editor along the way… 🙂