Technical content is not just for customers. It is also a valuable asset inside your organization, particularly for the technical support team. The technical support staff is responsible for helping customers to use a product successfully. The technical support organization desperately needs technical content—and the sooner it’s available, the better.
Technical content that is locked down in PDF files and print is not particularly useful to support agents. Support agents need quick answers to questions, so they need the ability to search all technical content quickly. They might be able to use the index or table of contents of a single printed book to find what they want, but given a library of books, an online search is the only reasonable option. With PDF files, the process looks like this:
- Search the company web site or intranet for a particular PDF manual.
- Download and open the PDF file.
- Search the PDF file to find specific information.
By this point, the customer has been on hold for several minutes and is probably steaming mad. The support agent isn’t very happy, either, because she is expected to handle a certain number of calls per hour, and this lookup process is killing her numbers.
- The support staff set up a wiki (a web site with many contributors).
- On the wiki, they first copied and pasted parts of the official documents out of the PDF files. They made updates where the copied information was out of date or where they disagreed with it. Eventually, the technical support staff began writing additional content and posting it in the wiki. Meanwhile, the technical documentation group was producing carefully vetted information that was reviewed by subject matter experts. The information in the wiki was not reviewed and was often inaccurate, but the wiki search was usable, and that immediate availability overrode any other concerns.
- The support staff created a knowledge base intended for technical notes.
- Technical notes are supposed to be applicable to technical support but not needed in the product documentation; for example, notes on specific product configuration problems. Support staff then began writing basic procedural documentation and storing it in the knowledge base. The information in the knowledge base duplicated and sometimes contradicted the information in the official documentation.
- The support agents created private content hoards on their local systems.
- This eliminated the wait for a download, but the content caches had to be updated manually, which usually did not happen. The support agents could search faster, but were searching out-of-date information.
When the technical support staff sets up a parallel content authoring system because accessing the technical content is too much work, you have a serious problem. These shadow documentation efforts are a symptom of the larger information-access problem. To avoid them, it is critical to provide an efficient way for technical support staff to search and access information. Otherwise, you face the following operational problems:
- Copying and pasting. The process of copying and pasting content takes up time the support team should spend on much more important activities (such as keeping end users happy).
- No easy path for updates. When the official technical content is updated to reflect changes in a product, does that information show up in support information? And if updates do make it into the unofficial support information, it’s likely copied and pasted, which is more wasted time.
- Contradictory information. With multiple copies of the same procedure, inconsistency is hard to avoid—and the result is confused customers and readers.
Technical content should provide a firm foundation for the technical support operation instead of undercutting it or making it more difficult. The role of technical support staff in creating content varies in different organizations, but duplicating content because the provided file formats are unusable is an appalling waste of resources.