The fallacy of low-cost documentation

 In many organizations, management pays as little attention as possible to content. Content development is assigned to administrative staff using whatever tools are lying around (usually Microsoft Office) or outsourced to the lowest bidder.

This approach does have advantages:

  • Minimal resources. Management ignores content and focuses on other priorities.
  • Minimal budget. The content budget looks small.

A more careful assessment of this approach usually reveals a number of significant problems:

  • Content is not useful. (“Nobody reads the documentation.”)
  • Content is available only in a single output format, such as PDF or perhaps the original Word files.
  • Content creators don’t understand the product, so they are producing superficial documentation guaranteed to infuriate anyone who does read it. (“In the Name field, type the person’s name.”)

It is acceptable to assess your organization’s content requirements and embark on a strategy of producing indifferent content cheaply (the “meh” strategy). The vast majority of organizations who adopt a laissez-faire attitude, however, have not thought through the implications.

The arguments for a strategy of indifference are:

  • Our content is not important to ensure safe operation of our product.
  • Our content meets regulatory standards, if any, and customer requirements.
  • Providing better content will not help the business.
  • Providing content in more formats will not help the business.
  • We do not localize content and will never be required to do so.

The argument usually breaks down in the latter portion of this list. Here are some typical business problems that have bad documentation as their root cause:

  • Call volume to technical support is high. Customers give up on looking in the (terrible) documentation and call instead, thus shifting the cost of bad documentation from the customer back to your organization.
  • Product returns are high and sales are lost. Customers fail at installing and configuring the product, so they return it. The installation and configuration documentation is impenetrable. There’s even a blog warning people not to buy the product because of these problems.
  • Missing content. A regulatory submission is delayed or rejected because it does not conform to agency requirements. A critical section was left out inadvertently.
  • Cannot deliver required formats. Use of a military standard for content is specified in a defense contract. But content was developed in a word processor. Now, the profitability and timely delivery on the contract are jeopardized by unexpected content conversion.
  • Ugly content contradicts premium product messaging. The organization markets a product as a high-end product at a premium price. But the documentation looks terrible, which contradicts the marketing message. The manuals do not contribute positively to the initial out-of-the-box experience. Things don’t get any better when customers look inside the manuals, either.
  • Huge globalization costs. The organization has identified opportunities in global markets, but delivering localized content from the existing workflow is unsustainable—the organization isn’t even keeping 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 the content in the documentation, but they 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.

Ignoring content can have huge cost implications across the organization.



1 comment

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  • This is a two edged sword. Management needs to stop looking at content as a cost center, but those writing the content need to make sure that their documentation is delivering value.

    A few things to consider:

    1. What strategies are you using to modularize your documentation to make it usable in more situations?
    2. Is your content visual and simple to follow?
    3. Are you delivering PDFs that no one reads or is your documentation searchable on the web?
    4. Is your documentation optimized for answering questions when users get stuck or is it just “talking about your product”?

    If you start creating documentation that delivers real value to the organization you will get the budget you need. But it will be hard to make the case before you take at least some small towards proving that docs can make a difference.