Are you creating and managing content nobody reads?

In pursuit of the ultimate techCom information architecture

Of course you say “no”. But, how do you know if your documentation is read and used (and helps the user)? My experience is that a lot of companies create and manage content that nobody reads. Nobody reads due to two reasons: users can’t find it (even if it is relevant) or because the content is judged to be irrelevant, when skimming the text.

This is probably true especially in B2B environments, where companies are designing manuals as they always have done. A content template that outlines what information to put into a manual was developed by someone several years ago and writers are sticking to the template ever since. The consumer industry is leading the way?

Well, moving to DITA allows you to reuse and be more efficient in producing content nobody reads. Maybe you are creating and managing a big manual, describing the product from various angels; in total many hundreds of pages of descriptive content. This is the way it has always been in your company for the past 10, 20 or even 30 years. Who needs the descriptions, when, to accomplish what? Have someone in your company thought about that? Where is the content strategy? And what do you say when people in your organization are questioning the type of content you write?

And what about the cost you are putting in. Maybe a company spends 5-10% of the R&D budget on documentation. If nobody reads big parts of it, it is a waste of money. And then content, that nobody reads, shall be translated. Huh!

At the end your manuals are probably helping some users. But the message here is: does your company get something back from the bucks you put in? The user is expecting some level of support from your manuals. How much support are your manuals intended to give? Is there a gap between the expected support and the actual support they give? Maybe your users can cope with using the manuals you provide. Maybe they are used to them and understand how they are organized. Maybe your users are from the “old school” actually accustomed to read and use big PDF files. They are patient and willing to put in some effort in reading and finding answers.

So why am I babbling about this? Well, there are things going on out there. As said in previous post, users are searching, not reading. And the time users can to spend on searching is decreasing and the amount of content to search in is increasing. Users are also getting more and more inpatient. Maybe not the “old” user you have today, but think of the “google generation”. They want the information that answers their question, delivered in the tool they are using (in the help system, smart device or whatever), valid for the product they are using, in the language they prefer, by just touching the magic button. You need to engage your users and monitor their happiness, build collaboration platforms where users, you and others can share ideas and content.

Soon the google generation is in charge (they are not yet), making the decisions to by your products. If you can’t provide instant information for your product, the customer will move to your competitor who can provide information in such as way. Content becomes a strategic asset.

Can you afford creating, managing and translating content that nobody reads and not prepare for future requirements? Or is it “don’t fix it if it works” kind of mentality. You need to start thinking about it already now, not tomorrow. Also, just moving to DITA is not giving you the benefits and roadmaps. You need to think before going DITA.

In future you need a content strategy, including a design methodology. What are your users searching for? What type of information do they need? How shall information be organized to be findable and searchable? How to transfer the knowledge embedded in the topics to end user? Giving these questions a thought might mean that you can skip a lot of content you are managing today. Maybe you will find that some information types are missing. A content strategy must be tied to the business goals and customer requirements. Meaning to bridge the gap between the expected support and the actual support a manual gives.

How do you develop a content strategy? Many technical communication organizations must develop the strategy with their left hand while producing content. It is like paving the road at the same time as you are driving the car. This is of course ineffective and means that there will not be a strategy, since it takes time to reflect and put all pieces together. But instead of developing a strategy from scratch you should look at existing strategies. SeSAM is a design methodology that helps you to determine what content you need to manage. Instead of starting from scratch, you can start from SeSAM and cut cost in developing a content strategy.  Explore SeSAM already today. Focus Areas: BPEL | DITA | ebXML | IDtrust | OpenDocument | SAML | UBL | UDDI
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