Last month I attended and spoke on a panel at the Information Development World conference. Scott Abel very kindly invited me to be part of the Management Issues in Information Development panel. I had a great time, and I picked up some great advice.
What else was in it for me?
As part of my rehabilitation program (where I learn how to properly attend and get value from conferences), I did my best to pick relevant panels and engage in post-panel discussions with fellow attendees. There was a good mix of techcomm and marcomm (marketing communication) professionals. In fact, that was the point of the conference: break down the barriers between corporate content creators, show us how we’re more alike than not, and get us to start working together.
As Sarah O’Keefe explained in her keynote, it’s time that we break down those silos. The overall message was a combination two things that are defining the new world of technical communication: cross-department collaboration and the need to measure and report on the business value of techcomm.
Bringing this back to work
I took 23 pages of notes at the conference. I focused on information and suggestions that I can turn into action items. Instead of summarizing the panels, I’ll describe what I’m going to do with these ideas. There are three main areas where I can apply these ideas: Working with marketing, working with product, and documentation improvements.
Working with marketing
This is where most of my tasks fall. I’ve already been working with our marketing team on site design and template work, but these tasks require significantly more collaboration.
Translation and localization
Sales execs have already asked me to research the time and cost required to translate our documentation into multiple languages. But why limit this to my content area?
More than one presenter explained that marketing is all about creating value. Translating both product and marketing content expands the number of potential customers, and that means a hell of a lot of value.
Content and tool coordination
I’m using a support tool to deliver product documentation, and it’s not a satisfactory solution. Other than the fact that it’s easy to update the docs, it doesn’t have a lot to offer. The marketing team is looking into publishing to enterprise WordPress, which Tom Johnson has written a bit about.
Because I’m going to need to create content for in-app help, probably as HTML or JSON files, I’m also looking into static site generators and whether that would work as a solution for lightweight authoring and publishing.
(Why not XML? Because our lead UX developer reacted with a mixture of horror and disgust when I suggested giving him documentation as XML files. He explained that XML is an outdated, bloated format that he has no intention of supporting.)
This is one that we need to develop. I don’t have these in place, and neither does marketing. There are a few basic metrics that I can put together, like a ratio of support tickets to documentation topics, and the number of tickets created where documentation exists versus problem tickets (bug reports, user error, network issues, etc.).
Greg Parikh from Oracle told us that it’s vital we extend our tentacles into other parts of the organization. Both to stay relevant (and be more difficult to dig out and toss aside) and to help us have a more complete perspective of business requirements.
One way to do this is to help marketing create content for conferences. This can include whitepapers, quick reference sheets, and videos (just to name three).
This is a great idea, but I think it will have to wait until I build out my team. I really want to help with this (conferences can be kinda fun), and I’ve done some of it in the past. But my help is going remain somewhat minimal for a while.
Speaking of videos…I need to create more of them. Although users love them, and sales keeps asking for them, I find them a little daunting. I can’t stand listening to myself blathering on, over and over as I fit the audio and visual pieces of a video together.
The marketing team can help me enlist narrators and generally make the videos look better with intro and outro graphics and even a bit of background music for longer videos. Basically, to make them look more professional than I can on my own.
This is going to be a long term project. I’m not sure who would own this, or who wants to (documentation/support, marketing, or maybe someone else). Again, I don’t have enough resources to devote to this, but it’s going onto the list of future projects that I want to start researching when I have a bit more time.
Competitive differentiation and advantage
For my area of responsibility, I need to know how to turn our support, documentation, and training into a competitive advantage. What can we do that differentiates us from our competitors?
This requires more research to determine what is most helpful for users: more comprehensive, story-based documentation, more examples and use cases, more videos, in-application help, localized help/support/training…
Maybe it’s all of those, or maybe one or two are the most valuable. I’m just guessing right now, and guessing is never the best way to build a plan.
Working with product management
This area includes tasks related to the areas where product planning and development meets user assistance.
Hugely important. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to talk to a few of our customers directly (not just through support channels), but as we expand our customer base I’ll need more formal, systematic methods of getting information about their expectations and requirements. Product managers build the business cases that lead product development, and that information will help me determine the level of user assistance we’ll need to provide through training, support, and product documentation.
Improving the documentation
This leads directly from improved customer research. I also need help from product management to include user assistance tasks into the product schedule, including documentation planning and review and everything required to build and deploy an in-app help system.
Coordinating our metrics
As with marketing, we need to work together to develop success metrics that match or compliment each other. This is largely new territory for me, so I’m not entirely sure what these will look like.
Documenting (and defining) the customer journey
This is a big, wide-ranging task. Laura Patterson explained what this is and why it’s important, and we don’t have anything like it in place. Building this customer journey map will require input from marketing, product management, engineering, and sales.
I’ve documented some of this as customer support touch points and sales-to-support handoffs. I’m going to build a larger map, but it’s going to have a lot of blank spaces that need input from the other teams. The goal is to have all of us understand the customer journey and list every touch point, and identify areas where there’s unclear ownership and places where we’re not serving our customers as well as we could.
That’s a lot of stuff!
That’s a long list of things to do. At least it seems that way to me. But this is a long term project, and it’s not something that I expect to complete in a month. Or two.
I’d love to say I’ll do all of this in the next six months, but I know very well that those six months will be full of new projects that require immediate attention, always at the expense of strategic planning. So my overall goal is to keep turning to this list to focus some time on the tasks that will bring long term success.