October 2012
By Sarah O'Keefe and Alan S. Pringle

Sarah O’Keefe is the founder of Scriptorium Publishing, a content strategy consultancy that specializes in technical content. Sarah focuses on how to use technical content to solve business problems.


Alan S. Pringle is director of Publishing Operations at Scriptorium. He implements new processes for developing and distributing technical content.



Transforming technical content into a business asset

It used to be so simple: A technical writer would meet with an engineer, gather information, write it up – in longhand – on a legal pad, and then send the information off to the typing pool. After some revisions, the typed manuscript and perhaps hand-drawn graphics would be delivered to the printer and, eventually, a book appeared. Over time, the legal pads were replaced with typewriters; then, the typewriters were replaced with computers. In addition to producing text, technical writers accepted responsibility for page layout and pre-press production tasks.

Today, technical writers are more often technical communicators: they produce text, images, photographs, charts, live video, screencasts, webcasts, comic books, simulations, and more. And technical communicators face a bewildering array of options: XML, help authoring tools, wikis, customer-generated content, desktop publishing tools, conversion tools, and so on. Instead of creating content in isolation, technical writers coexist with training, collaborate with technical support, and compete with user-generated content.

Other factors further increase the complexity:

  • Global markets require global content. Technical writers must create information in their customers’ languages or, as a fallback, simplify content so that readers with limited proficiency in the provided language can understand it.
  • Product development cycles are shorter. Information needs to be updated more often. A document production process that takes a week per iteration is perhaps acceptable for yearly product releases, but not for quarterly updates.
  • Government regulations and compliance requirements have increased. Regulatory agencies mandate not just what information needs to be delivered but also the storage format of that information.
  • Product variants or custom products are more common. Buyers expect customized content that reflects their unique configuration.

Due to these reasons, writers need a content strategy, which aligns their content-creation efforts with the organization’s business goals.

Controlling costs

One of the most common business goals for technical communication is controlling technical communication costs. This means understanding not just the amount invested in technical content, but also the cost of producing inferior content. Here are some typical problems that can be caused by poor documentation (and typically, insufficient investment):

  • The call volume to technical support is high because customers can’t find information in the documentation.
  • A high percentage of products is returned because customers can’t figure out how to install or configure the product.
  • A regulatory submission is delayed or rejected because it does not conform to agency requirements.
  • The organization markets a product as a high-end product at a premium price. But the documentation looks terrible, which contradicts the marketing message.
  • Huge globalization costs. The organization has identified opportunities in global markets, but delivering localized content from the existing workflow is unsustainable – the organization can’t even keep up with the content in the primary language.
  • Technical support and other internal organizations are creating content that duplicates documentation. Technical support, training, and other workgroups need content from the documentation, but are unable to find it. The manuals are delivered as monolithic Word or PDF files, and searching those files is tedious and time-consuming. Instead, the support group resorts to re-creating content in an unofficial knowledge base.


Efficient content development

A basic prerequisite for a good content strategy is that the content is of good quality – accurate, concise, and complete. An efficient workflow with professional technical communicators creating high-value information is typically the least expensive option (better, faster, and cheaper). This correlation is explained by the following factors:

  • Reuse versus copy and paste. Copying and pasting is quick and easy initially, but it is hard to maintain over time because of information duplication. Formal reuse, where a linked copy of information appears in multiple places, is easier to maintain. Given several thousand pages of content, the savings on content maintenance add up quickly.
  • Formatting. “Quick-and-dirty” formatting is also unmaintainable. Investing in content standards, such as templates, means that content creators spend more time writing and less time formatting. Better tools also mean less time wrestling with pagination, tables of contents, and similar components.
  • Production. Instead of converting content from one format to another manually, a professional workflow generates the proper outputs automatically. A one-time configuration effort replaces the repeated conversion task.
  • Localization. Better-organized content and automated production result in much lower localization costs. The “cheap way” – slamming everything into a word processor and throwing it over the transom to the translation vendor – results in escalating translation costs because content must be reformatted in every language.

A rough estimate is that writers spend around 20 percent of their time on formatting tasks in less-efficient content development environments (although we have even seen much higher numbers).

Developing a content strategy

Once the business requirements are understood, the next step is to develop a content strategy that addresses those requirements. If the problem is that call volume is high because customers can’t find information in the documentation, the solution is to improve the search functionality (and perhaps the documentation content itself). To develop a content strategy, we recommend the following steps:

  1. Assess the current situation. What information already exists? What is the information development process? What are the output requirements (existing and new requirements needed to solve the business problem)? Are there opportunities for content reuse (helps improve quality and lowers cost of development)?
  2. Architect a solution that supports the business goal. Consider your readers’ characteristics, such as their level of literacy, language proficiency, motivation, technological expertise, technology access, culture, location, and other demographics.
  3. Assess the risks. Most critically, understand the corporate culture, which affects what risks a company is willing to accept. A successful content strategy is compatible with the organization’s risk culture.


Implementing the content strategy

Content strategy projects are no different from other large projects that involve process change. They are stressful, uncomfortable, and often difficult to implement. Throughout the process, a strong change management strategy is critical.

To implement your project and improve your chances of success, we recommend following these steps:

  1. Identify and interview stakeholders: To ensure that your content strategy succeeds in the organization, you need to build momentum and support for the project. One proven way to do this is to identify the stakeholders who have the most to gain (or lose) from the new process and ensure that they have a voice in the project.
  2. Establish implementation goals and metrics: The business goals should logically lead to implementation goals and measurable success criteria.
  3. Define roles and responsibilities: It’s important to determine who will be responsible for education, review, approval, and implementation roles. The resources may be internal or external to the organization.
  4. Establish timeline and milestones: As in any project, establishing a schedule creates accountability. Without a schedule, the project will likely become a low priority and be delayed repeatedly.
  5. Build the system: Select, license, configure, and deploy the content creation system.
  6. Convert legacy content: It is usually possible to automate the conversion from an old file format to a new file format and the delivery of new and different output formats. But reorganizing and rewriting content requires the dedicated attention of a content creator and cannot be automated.
  7. Deliver content: you need to configure the system that extracts content from the content storage system and turns it into a deliverable format, such as paper, PDF, HTML, CHM, or EPUB. In some environments, this separation of authoring and publishing does not occur.
  8. Capture project knowledge: The project documentation and training are critical to ensure a smooth implementation.
  9. Ensure long-term success:  Even in the best-planned, most-organized environment, you will be required to make small changes to the content model, add new output paths, and so on. You must have a plan to manage these changes, as in any software development project.

A modern approach to technical content

A content strategy for technical communication brings technical content efforts into alignment with the organization’s business goals. This alignment, in turn, makes it easier to get executive support (and therefore funding) for the content efforts. It is time to transform technical communication from a necessary evil into a business asset.