November 2014
By Sarah O'Keefe

Image: © webphotographeer/ istockphoto.com

Sarah O’Keefe is the founder of Scriptorium Publishing and a content strategy consultant. Since founding the organization in 1997, Sarah has worked with numerous organizations to assess content issues, develop solutions, and implement new technologies that unlock content value. She is the author of Content Strategy 101: Transform Technical Content into a Business Asset.


www.scriptorium.com
okeefe@scriptorium.com


 


 

The role of technical communication in customer experience

Attracting and maintaining customers has traditionally been the task of marketing and sales departments. Will the shift towards customer experience redefine the role of technical communication? What new responsibilities and opportunities lie ahead?

An emphasis on customer experience is about to transform the practice of technical communication. “Just get it out the door” is no longer a viable strategy, if it ever has been. Bad technical communication leads to a bad customer experience.

Understanding the hierarchy of content needs

Like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we can develop a hierarchy of content needs, as shown in Figure 1. Technical communicators must assess their practices across the entire hierarchy of content needs starting from the bottom of the pyramid.

To create truly outstanding technical information, your content must meet all of the criteria shown in the pyramid. Minimum viable content satisfies the bottom three criteria: it is available, accurate, and appropriate.

Figure 1: Hierarchy of content needs

 

Available

Available content means that information exists, and that the person who needs the content has access to it. This category requires that content is findable, searchable, and discoverable – if readers can’t successfully locate the content they need, it might exist, but it’s not really available to the readers. This includes content that is hidden behind a firewall.

Accurate

Content must be accurate. In this category, we also evaluate information for grammar, formatting, consistency, and other specifications that improve the content quality. Historically, technical communicators have emphasized accuracy. I think this is because it is one of the few areas in which the content creator can directly control the results. Ensuring that content is available, for example, requires collaboration with other parts of the organization (such as the website team). Collaboration, however, can be the source of delays and other issues.

Appropriate

Appropriate content is content that is delivered in the right language, in the right format and at the right level of complexity. The customer’s needs, rather than business preferences, must drive content delivery choices. Content is technically “available” if you put it in an ugly PDF and email it to your customers, but that approach is unlikely to be an appropriate choice. Depending on your customers, appropriate content could mean creating a mobile-friendly HTML web site, an EPUB file, or something entirely different. Different customers will need different formats, and if technical communicators are tasked with supporting customer experience, they must provide those formats.

To ensure that the right format is available, we need to establish a flexible authoring and publishing environment that can deliver these formats.

To ensure that the right language is available, organizations must first understand their markets and customer requirements, and then implement a solid globalization and localization strategy.

Connected

Connected content allows customers to engage with your information. They should be able to comment on content, provide positive and negative votes, and perhaps edit content or contribute to a community site. Providing connected content means supporting users in engaging with your information.

Intelligent

At the top of the content needs pyramid we find intelligent content. Intelligent content is not just static text, but information that can be manipulated for different purposes.

Examples of intelligent content include personalized content, interactive service manuals, or content that can be filtered based on a specific customer’s needs.

Delivering intelligent content often requires you to integrate database content (e.g. product specifications) with authored content. Troubleshooting instructions might be integrated with information from the organization’s parts database.

Creating intelligent content requires an investment in technical communication. Technical communicators no longer create stand-alone pieces of content. Instead, the information they produce is part of an information chain.

Using the hierarchy of content needs

To create truly outstanding technical information, you must meet all of the criteria shown in the pyramid. Minimum viable content meets the bottom three criteria of available, accurate, and appropriate.

Unfortunately, many organizations fail to deliver even minimum viable content. They provide content that is outdated or technically inaccurate, that is inaccessible (it’s locked behind a firewall) or delivered in an unsuitable format, that does not contain the right level of detail, or content that is not available in the required languages.

In many organizations, delivering minimum viable content would be a huge improvement and this should be the first step.

Toward a unified customer experience

To support a unified customer experience, technical communicators need to look beyond the pyramid of content and beyond regulatory compliance. A document that conforms to the machinery directive doesn’t necessarily provide a good customer experience. In some cases, regulatory requirements might even stand in the way of a good customer experience. It is our job as technical writers to balance regulatory requirements with customer needs.

It’s quite common today to have glossy, beautifully designed sales and marketing materials, with targeted offers, fun interactive product configuration calculators, and the like. Once the customer buys the product, things change: The installation instructions are provided as a blurry, photocopied sheet of paper shoved into the product box. More often than not the text itself is incomprehensible. The implied message to the customer is: “Now that we have your money, we no longer care what you think of us.”

If customer experience is a priority, we need to make the transition from pre-sales prospect to post-sales customer a smooth one. Instead of focusing solely on the direct costs of technical communication (salaries, software, etc.), we need to start thinking about the indirect costs. An investment in technical communication can affect the following customer experience components:

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Reputation (positive social media posts instead of being criticized for terrible installation instructions)
  • Better match between customer needs and technical content provided
  • Less need for product returns (customers understand product better)

 

Changing our approach to technical communication

A focus on customer experience requires a new approach to technical communication. Organizations need a content strategy that covers all types of content (including marketing material, instruction manuals, etc.), provides for a unified look and feel, and a smooth transition from one content type to another. Technical support content (such as knowledge base articles), marketing white papers, and product documentation all need a common foundation, so that the customer (or prospective customer) has a positive, consistent experience.

Although technical communication today is often constrained by legal, cultural and linguistic requirements, these factors might not improve the customer experience. Technical communicators need to find the right balance between these requirements and a positive customer experience. They should ask questions such as: Will adhering to an ISO standard result in a document that is easy to understand? How can we create content that suits the customer’s needs while complying with the machinery directive?

The customer experience is a chain of interactions. Let’s make sure that technical communication is not the weakest link.