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:














  • 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?

Why a content spec saves you time and money

A content specification will save you troubles, time, and money, especially when you’re not the lone writer on a documentation project. It will ensure that you offer your users consistent and holistic documentation across a team of writers.

A content specification is a list of all topics to be created which ideally maps planned topics to requirements and/or designs to ensure comprehensive and complete documentation. It usually comes in a table with one row per topic, listing:

  • Topic heading and/or file name
  • Topic type (concept, task, reference, or whatever else you may use)
  • Topic owner
  • Writer (in case writers may be different from topic owners)
  • Reviewers (for example, subject-matter experts)
  • Date ready for review or for post-review editing (depending on your workflow)
  • Mapped deliverables (where the topic appears, for example, a certain user manual, the online help, etc.)
  • Time estimate (how long will it take to write the topic, optionally, including review)
  • Documentation task type, to help you estimate time:
    • Create new topic
    • Major rewrite of existing topic
    • Minor fix or addition to existing topic

Without it, you risk delivering a bunch of topics with gaps in some places and overlaps in others. You can still string them together, but no overview topic can convey a coherent content experience, if you didn’t plan for it and bake it into the topics and their structure.

So a content spec is a blueprint of your documentation project, just as you would create one before you start building a house – or design any kind of experience.

Yet content specs often elicit negative reactions…

“Oh, but we’ve managed without one so far…”

Many tech writers I know are very competent, and a few are lucky to boot. Considering all their projects with more than, say, 50 topics which didn’t use a content spec, I’d bet half of them are incoherent (“organically grown” is an oft-used euphemism).

The cost doesn’t stop at poor user experience. Such examples are also more difficult and more expensive to maintain, especially if you have overlapping topics and don’t remember to update both of them…

“Bah, reality eats specs for lunch…”

To an extent, yes. But on the whole, reality is an orderly patron. In my experience, the final documentation reflect the approved content spec in up to 80% of the topics. An average 10% of the topics get added during the writing, where concepts or prerequisite and auxiliary procedures are found missing. Another 10% of the topics get reorganized because the initial content spec misunderstood something, or because content simply makes more sense somewhere else.

“Even if, we’ll fix it later…”

Yes, you can. But once again it’s very expensive. Remember that the list of topics is only one result of the content spec. Their structure is another. Finding that a structure by workflows is inferior to a structure by, say, instrument, requires not just re-ordering topics, but re-writing a lot of them.

You can avoid this by drawing up a complete content spec before you write a single topic and getting it signed off by the key stakeholders, so they know rather well what documentation they will get. The 20% deviations mentioned above are usually justifiable, if they conceivably improve the deliverables.

– Given that content specs are a big help in creating and maintaining efficient and effective user documentation, I strongly recommend using them. If you have any experience with or without content specs, I’d love to hear it.

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.

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… 🙂

Why you need a tech comm mission statement

A mission statement for technical communication can help everyone in your company (or you and your customers) to stay on track in pursuit of a common goal of what your documentation can and should achieve.

Just like a corporate mission statement, a tech comm mission gives all parties who are involved with documentation direction and a common goal. It describes the purpose and benefit of the documentation and how it is achieved. It helps to define processes for creating the documentation as well as metrics whether the documentation is successful. If the mission is well-conceived, it guides documentation strategy without prescribing it.

For example, if you want to focus on usability and speed, a mission for your documentation could be: “Our product help answers any user question about product use in no more than three mouse-clicks.” Your strategy would then aim for a well-structured, easily navigable context-sensitive online help – with printed user manuals and closely tied in training materials taking a backseat.

A more comprehensive mission could be: “Our product help provides users with relevant product information at the right time in the right format.” This would set you on a quest to find out who your user types are, which product information is relevant for them and which formats it can be provided efficiently.

A mission statement in itself cannot be right or wrong. But it must be useful in several respects. Specifically, it must help:

  • Your customers and users by guiding you to provide useful documentation.
  • Your company externally to provide documentation which improves the perceived product quality.
  • Your company internally to anchor the importance and function of documentation.
  • You as technical communicators to make appropriate strategic decisions about documentation, for example, which users to address, which deliverables and processes to define, which methods and tools to apply.

What do you think? Is a mission statement for tech comm necessary? Or merely helpful? Or a vain attempt at putting on corporate airs when the writers should just buckle down and get the job done?

(Edit: The discussion continues in “Getting mileage from a tech comm mission statement“…)

ROI of topic-based authoring and single sourcing

Breaking down content silos brings benefits and ROI to topic-based authoring, even if you have little or no translation. I’ve cut down time to write and maintain three deliverables by 30-40% by reusing topics.

Content silos

The company I work for supplies documentation for its software solution in different formats, among them:

  • Release notes inform customers about new features and enhancements in new versions.
  • User manuals describe individual modules of the product, how to set them up, how to operate them and what kind of results to expect from them.
  • Online help focuses on reference information for windows and fields, but has some overlaps with information in user manuals.

Content silos maintain separate contents per deliverable.Originally, these three deliverables were created and maintained in separate “content silos”, using separate tools and separate source repositories. So the documentation process looked like this:

  1. Write release notes in Word.
  2. Update or write user manuals in Word.
  3. Update the online help in a custom-built help tool that uses Word as an editor and Microsoft’s HTML Help Workshop to publish to Microsoft Compiled HTML Help (.CHM).

I’ve found that I could save some time by writing the release notes with the other deliverables in mind, so I could copy and paste content and reuse it elsewhere. For example, my release notes describe a new batch job which helps to automate a tedious workflow. If I describe the batch job in detail, the same content fits easily into the user manual. (Yes, it bloats the release notes, but at least the information is available at the release date, while we didn’t always manage to update the user manual in time.)

Copying and pasting worked even better once I structured the content in each of the three silos as topics. For example, a task topic from the release notes would fit almost gracefully among similar task topics in en existing manual.

But such manual copy-and-paste reuse is really not efficient or maintainable, because my stuff is still all over the place. I may write in – or copy to – four places, but then remember to update only two of them; enter inconsistency and its twin brother unreliability.

Getting real about reuse

To get the full benefits and ROI of topic-based authoring, we’ve found it’s not enough to simply write topics and keep your concepts separate from your tasks. We’ve had to adjust our documentation architecture, our tools and our process.

The guiding principle is: “Write once, publish many”. This tech comm mantra proved to be the key. We now aim to have each piece of information in only one topic. That unique topic is the place we update when the information changes. And that’s the topic we link to whenever a context requires that information.

Single sourcing is the best way to get a collection of unique topics into user manuals and online help. So we needed to consolidate our separate content silos into a single repository from which we can publish all our deliverables.

MadCap Flare is the tool we chose. It gives us a reliable, yet flexible way to maintain a common repository of topics. For each deliverable, such as release notes and user manuals in PDF and online web help, we simply create a new table of contents (TOC) which collects all topics that go into the deliverable.

With topic reuse, we define tables of contents to assemble topics per deliverable.

The writing process has changed considerably: Previously, I would focus on writing a release note entry or a chapter in a user manual. Now I find myself focusing on a specific task or concept and how to describe it as stand-alone content so it works for the user, whether it appears in a user manual or in the release notes.

The flexibilities of MadCap Flare’s conditions feature and of our DITA-based information model help us to accommodate the differences of our deliverables. We still write a few topics explicitly for a specific deliverable. For example, in release notes, short “glue” topics serve to introduce new concept topics and task topics to establish some context for the user and explain why a new feature is “cool”. In user manuals, an introductory chapter with a few topics explains what to find where and which sections to read for a quick start.

But most of the topics can now be used in release notes, user manuals and online help alike. Since I’ve gone from copy-and-paste in three content silos to single sourcing topics in Flare, the time to write and update documentation for my module has decreased by 30-40%. It’s on the lower end if a new version brings a lot of brand-new features. It’s higher if there are more enhancements of existing functionality.