Smart documentation strategies: Bridging the great divide between documentation quality and perceived corporate value

Smart documentation strategies:
Bridging the great divide between documentation quality and perceived corporate value

Why the great divide and why calculate it?

Why is there a divide between documentation quality and its perceived corporate value and why should we measure this?  Quality and value should not be on opposite sides of this equation, but they are.  And we need this measurement because documentation doesn’t live in a vacuum and sooner or later every company will question their investment in documentation and its perceived value to the company as a whole.  This question is always raised by the corporate level and often precedes corporate restructuring and/or budget/personnel cuts.

Documentation isn’t a widget

So how can we measure quality vs value?  In the world outside of technical documentation, the easiest way to measure quality vs value begins with calculating cost.  Using the conventional ‘time + materials’ formula, we can, for example, calculate the cost of producing widgets. In this example, all you need to calculate is the cost of raw materials and your production costs. The math is easy!

This not the case in the world of documentation.  The work hours invested on both sides of the documentation divide – technical writers and their SME (subject matter experts) counterparts – cannot be reduced to a per-page cost.  This is especially true in our online Knowledge Base world, where much of the technical documentation does not live in linear page format but rather informational chunk format.

So what can we measure?  We can measure Objectives!

So how do we measure technical documentation quality and its resulting value to a company?  If the sole objective of technical documentation is to help end-users easily understand and use a product or technology; then we now have a measurable objective: end-user ease of use!  We can further create a set of five measurable objective metrics: customer satisfaction, internal documentation/employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction surveys, support call metrics and knowledge base analytics.

Five measurable objective metrics (from 'least to most' valuable)

Customer satisfaction

Depending on the technology, we can establish a list of measurable customer / end-user satisfaction metrics:

End-user performance metrics:

Ease of use can be measured by answering questions similar to the following. “By following the documentation…

  • to what extent can the end-user perform a given task without placing a support call?
  • to what extent can the end-user easily find a feature without placing a support call?
  • to what extent can the end-user find solutions to problems (troubleshoot) without placing a support call?
  • to what extent can the end-user learn about new features?

Technical documentation metrics:  

Documentation ease of use can be measured by answering the following questions.  “By following the documentation…

  • can the end-user navigate the technical documentation structure and easily find what they’re looking for?
  • can the end-user learn about the system/technology in an easy and user-friendly format?
  • are the procedures written in easy-to-follow steps?
  • are the instructions and explanations written clearly and accurately?
  • is the documentation current / does the documentation depict the most up-to-date features, terminology, and screen captures?

Internal documentation – internal employee satisfaction

Internal documentation may have some or all the above metrics and may, in addition, contain more technical and/or onboarding and/or informational chunks than end-user documentation.  The value of internal documentation can be assessed using standard KPIs, as most in-house employees tends to work in a more controlled environment than your average end-user.

End-user / customer satisfaction surveys

End-user surveys/customer satisfaction surveys can be an additional tool to measure documentation value.  The main drawback to these surveys is that the usefulness or significance of the answers depends directly on the quality of the questions and whether these questions directly tap into the true issue or issues that negatively impact the end-user.

Another difficulty with any survey is that end-users may not be willing or able to identify the source of their dissatisfaction, which can be found anywhere – in a feature or product or user interface or the documentation.  To add insult to injury, as these surveys are usually not prepared by the technical writers but rather by support/ presales /marketing departments, the answers may not be communicated to the writers in a meaningful and actionable manner.

Support call metrics

Support call metrics are the natural go-to when measuring documentation quality and value to the company.  To get an accurate read, you need to benchmark your support call numbers prior to publishing technical documentation or prior to a major technical documentation update.  Once benchmarked, the quality of the technical documentation should be evident in a significant reduction in support calls of a procedural/how-to nature.

Knowledge base analytics

Knowledge Base (KB) analytics provide one of the best documentation value metrics available today and include insights into most visited pages/articles, most searched terms and more.  Going forward this data must be analyzed to understand and identify technical documentation shortcomings, where to fix these shortcomings and then, going forward, monitor changes in KB insights and in a reduction in support calls.

Technical documentation doesn't live in a vacuum

The bottom line is that technical documentation doesn't live in a vacuum, it lives in the tug-of-war environment between technical writers, SMEs, corporate management and end-users.  Corporate scrutiny, assessment and monitoring can only improve the documentation process, the quality of the deliverables, the level of seriousness/valuation attributed to technical documentation and finally the treatment of documentation as a product and not simply as a necessary evil or unwanted by-product of product or technology development.

About the author: Yochi Eisner is Manager of ExperTeam's Technical Documentation department and has over twenty years of proven experience in the technical documentation and communication fields and has written and lectured extensively on business-related communication issues.  Click here  to learn more about how ExperTeam’s technical documentation services can help you company:

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