August 2017
By Maxwell Hoffmann

Image: © SDL

Maxwell Hoffmann has over 15 years of experience working for Language Service Providers and 20 overlapping years designing XML and structured authoring solutions. He is currently out of the language space, focusing on structured content, Component Content Management Systems (CCMS) and S1000D as a product marketing manager for SDL.




Beyond words: The reinvention of technical documentation

Structured technical content has enormous potential. Following best practices in creating technical information will ultimately lead to greater customer satisfaction.

This article provides abbreviated content from a recent eBook of the same name published by SDL. Download the entire eBook here.

The customer experience... more than marketing

Companies now aspire to a holistic strategy to engage with customers and provide them with a relevant, consistent, high-quality experience. Your brand is defined by the sum of every experience your customer has with you at every touchpoint – from a print advertisement to a website, from an in-store purchase to online help, from marketing content to user documentation... online or offline... mobile or PC... pre-sale or post-sale. Each and every experience is crucial.

Quality automation

Automation of basic quality checks during the creation process will dramatically improve your content. Ideally, content is checked while it is being created to prevent inconsistency. The best way to do this is to use a centralized content repository integrated with quality checking software that shows the content authors where they have deviated from corporate standards, right within their editing tools.

Streamlined review

A review process that is integrated with content creation ensures true collaboration. Companies can achieve this vision by moving away from externalized reviews (such as printed markup or PDF comments). You can lose even the best productivity gains in your content creation process if the review process entails manual collation and changes to content. When creation and review processes use the same tools, you can centralize feedback from multiple contributors, eliminate duplicate comments and create immediate and direct interaction between reviewers and writers.

Empower your subject matter experts across your organization to share their expertise in an easy, streamlined, process-oriented way. Your customers will benefit from the best information your organization has to offer, resulting in customer satisfaction and, in turn, brand loyalty.

Rich media

Integrate rich media into your technical content to increase the value and usability for your users. Publish it through channels that allow you to control your brand, and tailor the content for different audiences.

Rich media doesn’t stand alone. Its true value lies in how it is integrated and contextualized: where, when and how customers view and use it. Direct feedback, commentary, dynamic information overlays, hyperlinks, subtitles and interactivity all add richness.

Everything in context

By dynamically targeting multimedia to specific customers, companies can create contextualized engagement with greater relevance. You can present videos for different customers on the same page based on your knowledge of those customers, such as the products they have purchased and the type of information they have previously searched for and viewed.

In addition, rich media is globally accessible across channels in multiple languages. By automatically using translated audio tracks or subtitles based on your customers’ geographic location, you give them direct access to information in their language of choice. You even have the option to use completely different media from region to region, tailored to specific audiences in a specific location.

Leveraging structure

Once technical documentation is structured, companies can leverage the resulting metadata to provide a deeper integration between media and existing publications. By combining existing images with DITA content, you can take advantage of content semantics to transform these images into rich media. Content creators can have total flexibility in updating specific videos within a specific publication without editing the publication itself.

Intelligent rich data

Creating and delivering great content requires you to understand what your customers need. You can gain this insight by gathering rich data about the content you publish and how it’s used.

Technical communication is no exception to this trend; however, traditional publishing formats may make data gathering difficult. Fortunately, dynamic delivery and component-based authoring remedy this problem. Modularized publishing of stand-alone topics within a dynamic delivery tool lets you track many new data points.

Mobile ubiquity

Content delivery strategies need to support an ever-increasing number of mobile devices with unique screen sizes, operating systems and functional capabilities. Current solutions often use Responsive Design as an initial approach, which does not address device-specific needs or deliver an optimal mobile experience. You should seriously consider Adaptive Design which involves a server-side component. The table below contrasts benefits of the two approaches.

Responsive Design

Adaptive Design

One codebase (CSS)

Server-side software combined with CSS

Only works for newer mobile devices

Works for all mobile devices

Ignores mobile context

Can leverage unique device capabilities (GPS)

Loads entire web page

Loads only the content useful for the device

Only one page template

Uses device-specific templates for a better experience


Mobile delivery

To effectively address the challenges of mobile delivery, you need to rethink the customer experience. How do your customers consume content when they use a mobile device?

On mobile devices, people often use search to locate content as opposed to referencing an index or table of contents. In addition, mobile delivery offers a great platform for rich media such as videos, animated images and audio, while maintaining access to corresponding text.

Mobile support

You can directly integrate customer support options, as many customers look for additional levels of support when searching technical documentation from a mobile device. For example, one-click support ticket creation, with pre-filled form fields based on the current help topic, makes it much easier for the customer to contact you.

In other words, don’t just deliver the same content and format to all devices. Be strategic in how to make your content mobile-ready, mobile-friendly, and mobile-interactive, while considering your audience and their need for specific information.

Be global

Thanks to the worldwide use of the internet, all online businesses are global, whether they want to be or not; your content must be available to your customers in all relevant languages.

In the past, many companies would triage content for geographic regions into distinct tiers based on their value to customers and the company. This can lead to both inconsistent content and poor quality, resulting in missed opportunities to provide customers with what they need.

Localization strategy

Often the existing processes, resources and tools were too expensive to justify and led some companies to not translate all of their content. Fortunately, the advent of statistical machine translation and automated translation systems, coupled with reusable content, has gone a long way to solving this challenge.

While content reuse lowers translation costs, it must be managed to ensure translators can consider the context of the content. Today, publication analytics greatly improves this process.

Beyond translation

Translation is just one part of being global. Different regions prefer some channels to others. By focusing on content delivery across all channels, you ensure all customers get content in the format they want or need. Translation solutions are at the heart of it, but globalizing content is not just about language. Take the time to tailor your content to cultural nuances, and the devices used in different regions of the world.

Content discovery

You can create great content, but if your customers can’t find it, the value is lost. For most companies, all content is online, so all content creators – not just web and marketing teams – need to be concerned with search engine optimization (SEO).

Many technical content creation teams are not familiar with SEO best practices, as traditionally, it has not been part of technical documentation. Fortunately, structured content already improves search results by providing search engines with greater context through semantic elements. Further improving the search results, structured content’s use of descriptive tags that describe the content also informs the search engine about your content’s purpose. This metadata dramatically improves SEO over PDF and even HTML. This drives the best content to the top of customer search results and makes it easier to find.

Faceted search

Content owners must also enable content discovery beyond basic search results. Faceted navigation categorizes content across publications and deliverables. This lets your customers discover related content outside of the publication they are viewing. For example, a customer searches a user guide for new feature information. In addition to search results within the user guide, the customer may also see results from other publications, multimedia and other types of content about the new feature.

Structured content makes managing these categories possible through subject scheme support, which automatically adds new content to existing category frameworks.

Recommending content

Recommendation engines were originally developed for e-commerce to provide recommendations to customers about related items for purchase or to show similar items that other customers have purchased. By automating suggestions based on customer behavior, the best and most useful content automatically rises to the top of all search results. Similarly, for technical documentation, integrated content analytics can inform content creators about what content is most popular. This allows content creators to give these topics the most attention.

With the combination of powerful search engines, improved SEO through structured content, faceted navigation and possibly even an integrated recommendation engine, customers should always find the content they are searching for, and more importantly, useful content they didn’t even know existed.


It’s safe to say that we all strive for the same thing: delivering great content to our customers. But there’s more to it than creating it and publishing it.
The first step is embracing technical content as a critical touchpoint in your customer’s journey and therefore must be incorporated into your organization’s overall customer experience strategy.

The second step is creating an internal and external infrastructure that supports an integrated content approach. The bottom line is that you must meet your customers’ needs for accurate, valuable information, exactly when they are looking for it, suited to the device they are using, appropriate for their language and culture, and in an interactive manner that allows feedback and sharing.

If done right, this strategy leads to satisfied customers who are willing to advocate for your brand around the world.