Preview my STC14 session about structured topics

If you are curious about moving from unstructured documentation to structured topics – or if you cannot decide whether my session at the STC Summit next week is for you – here are the slides, maybe you find them helpful:

Moving to topics? Join me at STC Summit!

If you’re moving to topic-based authoring (or considering the move), join me next week at the STC Summit in Phoenix for my presentation “From Unstructured Documentation to Structured Topics“.

The format will be a “project walk-through mini-workshop” in a regular session slot of 45 minutes. That means you won’t get a detailed project plan or silver bullet for a successful migration to topics. But you will get plenty of information about the involved methods, options, and risks. Most importantly, you will get a chance to improve your confidence – and hence your chances for success – for such an important project!

Here’s the abstract:

You’re sold on the benefits of structured content, but don’t know how to begin? This session shows you how to implement topic-based authoring by converting existing unstructured documentation into structured topics, even in regular office software such as Word.

The underlying process works for online help, user manuals, but also other content, such as wiki articles, training materials, etc., as long as you know which deliverables you need to create and their approximate purpose.

There are several stages to the process:

  1. Identify topic type or types per content section, for example, concept, task, reference, or use case. Content which mixes topic types can be sorted out with a little care.
  2. Re-chunk your sections to turn them into stand-alone topics. You can delete redundant or obsolete information which does not belong into a topic. Or you can spin it off into a topic of its own or integrate it with another, more suitable topic. Special strategies help you to deal with topics that are too complex.
  3. Re-sequence your topics, so they flow nicely when users read not just one or two of them, but need to follow a complete process. If the topic sequence doesn’t flow nicely, you may need to add some auxiliary topics which orient readers and ensure a good flow.
  4. Rewrite headings to guide readers to give users enough orientation when they read just one or two topics. Rephrase them so users can quickly dip in and out of your documentation.
  5. Add links between related topics to ensure that the structured topics work in various use cases, even if users refer only to few topics.

This presentation emphasizes practical tasks; you will

  • How and why to create a content model
  • How to identify topic types in existing content
  • How to re-chunk content into true topics
  • How to sequence your topics
  • How and why to write good headings for your topics
  • How to link related topics

We’ll meet on Monday, 19 May at 9:45 in 106 BC in the Phoenix Convention Center. Hope to see you there!

Rate and improve tech comm with the Net Promoter Score

You can use the Net Promoter Score to rate and improve technical communication – but it works best on the scale of corporate content for which the score was designed. Here’s why and how.

The Net Promoter Score (NPS)

The Net Promoter Score measures customer loyalty and satisfaction with a company or offering.  It boils down difficult issues with perceived quality to a simple question:

How likely are you to recommend our company/product/service to your friends and colleagues?

Usually, the answers are ranked on a scale from 1 (highly unlikely) to 10 (very likely). You distinguish the percentage of respondents in three groups:

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

Detractors

Passives

 Promoters

  • Detractors are people who replied with 6 or lower.
  • Passives are people who rated your offer as 7 or 8.
  • Promoters are people who answered 9 or 10.

The NPS is the percentage of promoters minus the percentage of detractors: If 20% of your customers are promoters who really like your offering (and answered 9 or 10) and 30% don’t think too highly of it (and answered 6 or lower), then your NPS is 20-30 = -10. Generally, an NPS  above zero, indicating more promoters than detractors, is considered a good thing…

NPS for tech comm?

So how can we apply that score to tech comm? Are customers loyal to a help system? Are they likely to recommend it to friends or colleagues? Probably not in isolation of the described product.

There don’t seem to be a lot of ideas “out there” that connect NPS to documentation, but one article by JoAnn Hackos does: Influencing the Bottom Line: Using Information Architecture to Effect Business Success.

The key to turning the NPS into a useful tool for documentation is to take the scope from the NPS, not from the documentation! Hackos shows how we can relate the NPS to corporate and product content as a whole. This includes tech comm, but also marketing and sales content. This is what drives the customer experience which the NPS reflects. And it takes improvements in the corporate-wide content and its information architecture to increase the NPS.

Hackos describes a company which found that content contributed to the low NPS:

… senior management became advocates for significantly improving content quality. That meant changing the relationship between the technical authors and the product developers, requiring that information architects establish close relationships with customer support and training, and redefining the type of content that would be delivered to customers in the future.

– Sometimes, tech comm can adopt management tools to their purpose and scope, but with the NPS it seems most feasible to plug in to the corporate use of the tool.

Does this make sense? Can tech comm benefit from NPS and improvement initiatives? Or is that a hare-brained idea, and we should really stick to key performance indicators suitable for tech comm?

Top 4 layers for your tech comm strategy

To show and increase the value of tech comm in your organization requires focus and priorities. That’s especially difficult in times of too many conflicting demands and not enough resources.

But you can adapt tried-and-proven business principles and tools to keep your tech comm efforts on the rails and contribute to larger business goals.

The 4 strategic layers

A solid business strategy framework has four aligned layers:

4 strategic layers: Mission, strategic goals, tactical initiatives, and operational tasks

  • Higher layers have very few abstract elements which give lasting, big-picture orientation. Aligned means they give direction and help to define lower layers.
  • Lower layers have many concrete elements which give specific instructions. Aligned means their execution contributes to achieving higher layers.

Yes, it takes some time to formulate the four layers – but I find it’s a good investment in your future: You can decide and defend what tasks you prioritize and how you do them. And you can show how tech comm add value to the organisation as a whole.

Now let’s take a look at the elements of the four layers.

The mission (statement)

The mission is the organisation’s reason for being put into practice. The mission takes several years to accomplish, and it should not be changed or abandoned lightly. The mission is guided by a vision for a future goal.

The mission statement is defined as “a written declaration of an organisation’s core purpose and focus that normally remains unchanged over time.” The mission statement is one or two sentences that fit on a t-shirt which the people behind it can be proud to wear.

In the mission statement, the organisation explicitly or implicitly answers four questions:

  1. Why are we here? What is the unique purpose we serve, the value we provide?
  2. What do we do? What products and services do we offer to provide that value?
  3. Who do we do it for? Who are our markets and audience?
  4. How do we do it? What principles and values guide our efforts?

For example, IKEA says: Our mission is to offer “a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.”

For more about mission statements for tech comm, see my earlier post Why you need a tech comm mission statement.

The vision

The vision is the organisation’s goal several years in the future. It answers the question where the organisation wants to go. It can motivate the people behind it to get out of bed in the morning. It guides the organisation’s mission through time. By pursuing the vision, the organisation can accomplish its mission and fulfill its purpose.

For example, IKEA says: “Our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people.”

Strategic goals

Strategic goals describe self-contained efforts that have a distinct, measurable effect on the organisation’s business success. When reaching a strategic goal, the organisation usually can:

  • Offer more efficient or effective products and services
  • Translate the improvement directly into a customer benefit

Strategic goals are major advances towards accomplishing the mission. They take around a year to reach, or even longer.

Tactical initiatives

Tactical initiatives are measurable milestones or contributions to a strategic goal. They often take weeks or months to execute.

Operational tasks

Operational tasks are individual steps in tactical initiatives. They take days or weeks to finish. Policies and procedures, guidelines and standards guide the execution of tasks.

1st day of sessions at TCUK 13

On its first day of sessions, TCUK13 offered very diverse sessions. My selection of presentations – and hallway conversations – focused on cognitive science, the future of tech comm, the business side of our industry as well as managing tech comm, this year’s specialist stream.

Sarah O’Keefe on “Fame, glory and… tech comm”

Sarah’s opening keynote urged us to unleash our inner pirate and “go for the booty” of corporate resources and attention – in other words: to follow the money. We tech comm’ers need to understand the objectives and KPIs of C-level executives, develop a content strategy that supports these objectives and then profit (before marketing or other departments do, as Ellis Pratt later pointed out in his rant).

This way we can create effective tech comm which meets both business needs and user needs – as opposed to artisanal tech comm which fails business goals or cheap and merely adequate tech comm which fails users.

My session on semiotics and mental models

My own presentation Addicted to meaning: Mental models for technical communicators was attended by approximately 50 people and quite well received, I thought.

It’s essentially a brisk walk through a couple of cognitive concepts that underlie much of tech comm. After considering what meaning actually is and why we technical communicators should even care, I looked to semiotics to explain how meaning works in communication – and why it still sometimes fails in tech comm. The second concept is mental models which can explain how and why we create meaning – and how we can create meaningful documentation.

Adrian Morse on “The challenges of remote management”

Adrian drew on his experience of both working at home and managing technical communicators who work at home to explain many of the challenges of managing writers remotely. His tips applied to most teleworking scenarios, from occasional home office days to full-time teleworking by some or all of the team members.

Remote working and managing requires thought-through policies and a good reliable setup that starts with the appropriate hardware and network services and extends all the way to regulating PC administration, backup policies, etc. and complying with corresponding laws and EU regulations.

Adrian emphasized how important communication is as long as someone, anyone teleworks: You need to agree on mutual expectations in terms of hard objectives and performance, but also in terms of softer factors of answer times and availability for mail and phone contact. Just as working face-to-face, teleworking requires regular meetings, both 1-on-1 and of the team as a whole. Also make sure you have good ideas and policies for when and how you allow people to enter teleworking scenarios and when and how they will end them again!

Ray Gallon on “The Quantum Funnel”

Ray’s talk dovetailed with my own: His reference to creating scripts which explain how we behave in a restaurant was very close to my own example of how mental models determine our approaches to and perceived options in restaurants.

His premise is that today’s practice of learning is much more scattered and autonomous than it has previously been when learning was more controlled and directed. Such learning leaves more and more crucial gaps than before. To make sure that people (and users of tech comm specifically) can successfully fill their knowledge gaps, learning becomes more important than knowing.

One such approach is “connectivism” which understands learning as the process to search and connect concepts, ideas and fields. In this context, learning must not only answer the questions “what?”, “how?”, “where?” and “when?”, but also “how to be?” and “how to be with others?”. People in general and tech comm audiences in particular, increasingly learn in self-directed and creative ways by social collaboration, together with others. The role of teachers shifts to facilitator, that of technical communicator to curator.

This will emphasize both social and cognitive skills in the future, when we learn by moving through these stages:

  1. Exploring and understanding
  2. Representing
  3. Planning and executing
  4. Monitoring and reflecting

Applied to tech comm, this means our model shifts from a gatekeeper of knowledge to that of a curator and storyteller, as we avail ourselves of different types of contextual information, some of which our outside of our control:

  1. Internal documentation, such as progressive disclosure.
  2. External information, such as it is in Wikipedia.
  3. Interactive information, such as MOOCs and commenting functions support them.

– Feel free to leave comments about any of the sessions, whether you have attended them or not. I will try to answer them as well as I can.

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?

STC13: Alyson Riley about effective IA

In her session “Building Effective IA Teams in Resource-Challenged Times”, Alyson Riley from IBM offered her take on the recent theme that tech comm needs to “speak business” to prove its worth. (This is part of my coverage of the STC Summit 2013 in Atlanta.)

Alyson argued that “nice to have” initiatives are no longer compelling enough to get tech comm a budget or a mandate. To play a mission-critical role in a corporation, tech comm must plug into the corporate strategy. However, that strategy and its stakeholders usually isn’t waiting for us to put in our two cents. So we tech comm’ers must:

  1. Focus on corporate strategy as opposed to tactics.
  2. Play to the motivations behind the strategy, so we can come up with ways to support it with our unique skills and contributions.

The following moves can help with that second step:

  • Address the “buyer evaluates” and “buy” stages of the product. Usually, we speak to the “customer uses” stage of our product where there’s often more cost than income. The challenge is to make it compelling for buyers and sales to also use our content to their benefit in the more profitable stages. A good start is to ask sales: “What is the hardest part of your job?” and see if we can help them with the information we provide.
  • Influence social content to help leads along the marketing funnel from awareness to loyalty and advocacy. That doesn’t mean to “sell out” completely to marketing. It’s often as easy and sensible as including customer benefits in our content. Simply add the “why” to the “how” and give clients a chance to understand and promote your product.

Both moves boil down to the same principle: Don’t educate stakeholders in sales, marketing, product management, etc. about the product. Instead, imagine what the success of these respective stakeholders looks like and address that:

  1. Analyze opportunities your product can address in the terms of sales and marketing.
  2. Craft an effective story that centers on your content and how it can drive revenue, sales, customer satisfaction and loyalty.
  3. Prove it with metrics that speak to the stakeholders.

When it comes to metrics, page views of documentation usually don’t impress managers much. Instead, Alyson suggested “time-to-value” (TTV) which measures the customer’s time from buying or paying for the product to the moment they reap value from it. This is similar to “return-on-investment”, but TTV can be clearer to measure when investment consists of one-time payments plus maintenance fees. Also, it’s easier for tech comm to favorably influence TTV… 🙂