tech comm – elearning – information experience


If tech comm content is an asset, can analytics measure its value?

Analytics, like school league tables, should be approached with a healthy degree of scrutiny. As more of our technical content, such as help, white papers and product guides, goes out onto the Internet, the pressure to measure and quantify its value using analytics increases. analytics-image

From post-sale necessity to valued asset

Let’s start with some good news. As companies wrangle growing quantities of diverse content, which has to look great on any device out there, technical content is included in that challenge. That’s a good thing. We now apply weighty, finance-derived words such as assets and collateral, previously reserved for the domain of marketing, to a wider range of content. We recognise that content which was previously destined exclusively for post-sale audiences is now increasingly used up front before a purchase is ever made. This raises its perceived “strategic” value, and contributes to blurring the line between technical communication and content strategy.

What can we measure, and what does it tell us?

For example, you host user help on your web site. Add an analytics code on every help page, and you can start measuring traffic. Simples. But what does that traffic tell you? Is it confirming what you already know, or delivering new, actionable insights?

“Data is your eyes, not your brain.” — Colleen Jones of Content Science and author of Clout, the art and science of influential web content

If you have an established relationship with your help desk or tech support team, you probably already know the main “gotchas” and stumbling blocks experienced by your customers, and you’re either providing supporting material to help resolve those issues, or you’re lobbying for an improved user experience to remove the “gotchas” in the first place. The traffic gives you a benchmark against which to measure changes you make to your content. Over time, you can track the effect of changing titles, improving landing pages, adding detail, removing clutter, and moving high value elements to more visible areas on a page. Lana Gibson, of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), wrote a great post in February, on the analysis of analytics data and influence of changes to content: GOV.UK page performance: are we fulfilling our content goals? The clue to the real value, however, is in the last part of Lana’s blog title – content goals. The GDS is measuring against specific goals which they have set based on the aims of GOV.UK.

This highlights one of the challenges for tech comm: once your technical content is on the web, it is no longer exclusively used in a post-sales context by people with the same types of issues that are coming into your help desk. You have to take that into account when analysing the data or your interpretation is skewed. Also, does your analysis of the analytics data take the wider organisation’s content goals into account? Can you accurately define, or measure its “value” unless it does?

Please do share your thoughts on, and experiences of, analytics in tech comm in the comments. If you’d like to wade in on school league tables too, please do. Both are on my mind right now. Lastly, I wanted to give a hat tip to Indi Young, whose talk on Practical Empathy from UX Lausanne last year made me challenge some of my thinking on analytics to date. It’s 45 minutes long – grab yourself a cuppa and enjoy.

Indi Young – Practical Empathy from UX Lausanne on Vimeo.

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A small dose of empathy goes a long way

I stood at the front of the class, full of enthusiasm, ready to deliver a training course on a wonderful, new, soon-to-go-live software product. It was a hands-on course with lots of exercises and fun quizzes. I’d worked hard with the project team to make sure we’d keep the focus on relevant features for the different departments who were completing the training programme.

What was missing?

Before we’d even switched on a machine, the questions were coming thick and fast. How will this change my role? How will I work with department x? Where will I find y? And.. why are we doing this?

Was explaining all that part of my job? I was the software expert, not an organisational change guru.

It was my job that day, and in a way, it still is now.

The things you can’t see

Technical communicators create conceptual content as well as instructions. They build visual as well as text-based content. And today, all of this information can be consumed and shared via your web site by people, for whom a product purchase is but a twinkle in the eye of some far away budget holder.

The value that technical communicators bring is not in describing what the user can see, but what the user can’t.


That includes: seriously technical content – how to build a complex customisation that you can’t see yet; and it’s content which answers conceptual and scenario-based questions – how do I relate this to my role, my world, to the thing I have to get done right now?

Today, there are lots of ways to gain insights into the things which your users cannot see clearly, without physically being in the same room as them. However, few come close to delivering an equivalent injection of empathy.

And you’ll carry that with you for a long time afterwards.

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soap! conference Krakow round-up

Chalk board at soap! conferencesoap! is a technical communication conference for all stakeholders in this industry. The audience was a mix of writers, editors, UX, engineers, product managers, and translators. I met lovely people from start-ups and multi-nationals from all over Central and Eastern Europe. has a great write-up of the conference on their blog. It’s in Polish, but Google Translate does a pretty good job. The conference sessions were all in English over a two-day period, with the exception of one workshop run in Polish on the first evening.

This post hooks you up with some of the presentations from day 2. My previous post gives you a taste of day 1.

Rahel Bailie of Intentional Design presented the keynote, Do You Trust Me Now? Creating technical content in the age of social media. New vocab and things to think about: edutainment = elearning with entertainment elements; ephemeral content for business use; and putting the customer at the centre of omnichannel experiences.

The day then split into two tracks. I followed Ray Gallon, who talked about using content and tech comm to build a better end-to-end customer experience. He mentioned Tin Can API as an interesting “lightweight SCORM” development. If elearning is your thing, it’s worth checking out.

Noz Urbina‘s Messages for your manager about content covered a lot more than the title suggests. On one level, it was about the language you use when pursuing content strategy within your organisation’s overall business strategy. Somehow within 35 minutes, Noz also layered in a tour of modern content architecture, examples of metadata in action, and an inspiring pep-talk for tech comm professionals.

Agnieszka Tkaczyk told her team’s story about getting started with infographics at IBM and the lessons learned along the way. Two 3’s to remember: infographics work well as stories with an introduction, a middle, and an end; and they usually include three components – a data visualisation (e.g. chart), an image, and text. In tech comm, they may not substitute detailed instructions, but they help draw the user in. However, enterprise audiences beware – they can be perceived as not “serious” enough!

soap conference soap

soapy giveaways

This was only the second year of soap! and it has doubled in size and duration. At under GBP 100 it is great value-for-money.

More importantly, soap! is an enthusiastic, optimistic, and very friendly meeting of tech comm minds. Big thanks to the soap! team for all the hard work and fun.


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sponge, bubbles, soap and a dog

So glad I made it

I nearly didn’t land in Krakow at all. The pilot made one missed approach.

“We get three attempts, then we have to land somewhere else” explained the senior cabin crew member to his junior counterpart.

At the second attempt, we made it. And I’m on my way to soap! conference, hosted at hub:raum, an innovation hub for Central and Eastern European startups. It’s light, bright, buzzing and there’s a cute dog too.

This is soap!’s second year. @RayGallon does a nice tweet, which sums up why I want to be here.

The cute dog is a bonus.

Dogs are doing just fine at hub:raum #soapkrk

A photo posted by Pawel Kowaluk (@pawelkowaluk) on

Takeaways so far

Kasia Mrowca and Sabina Misiarz-Filipek talk about feature development and elearning respectively – their lessons apply equally to any aspect of tech comm:

“Easy to add features, hard to make the app simple” – Kasia Mrowca on feature gluttony

“The client knows what they want it to look like, but not the goal that it is trying to achieve” – Sabina Misiarz-Filipek on elearning

I really liked Kevin Duncan’s talk which pulled in highlights from The Diagrams Book. 50 ways to solve any problem visually. My kind of communication.

And Rajeev Kumar Tiwari and Rajesh Khurana, conferenced in from India – two tech writers utterly committed to UX. Impressive.

Day 2

The last day opens with Rahel Bailie, then splits into two tracks: sponge and bubbles. Sponge includes Noz Urbina on Messages for your manager about content, and bubbles has Ray Gallon on a Your most important business asset, build better end-to-end customer experience. And lots more. Looking forward to it, and to seeing the cute dog again.

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SaaS for cash

I love Software as a Service (SaaS), but how do you persuade me to hand over the cash? First, a quick shout-out to Ellis Pratt (@ellispratt) of Cherryleaf for his recent post on SaaS… it got me thinking.

I have been working with cloud-based software products for some years. What has changed over the last few months is that I have increased the number of applications for which I am prepared to part money with on a monthly basis, in some cases as a preference over buying the software upfront. Whether it’s authoring or publishing software such as Madcap Flare’s MadPak or Adobe’s Creative Cloud, Microsoft Office 365, accounting software or contact management software, the shift to offering Software as a Service (SaaS) is well underway. Here’s Gartner’s definition and helpful links if you want some background.

It works for me because there are great products out there which suit my budget, my devices, my mobility, and my desire to always have the latest software with minimum hassle.


However, with an increasing amount of quality free software out there, what is it that persuades me to part with my cash – even on an affordable subscription basis?

  • Sign in and trial. Ideally, I don’t want to install anything locally, especially not for a trial. And if I do, fast and painless please.
  • Stellar trial experience. First impressions count. Pull out all the stops in the trial. This might not be a time to show a “subset”. Show it all, and show it off.
  • Great design. I recently quit a trial after less than two minutes because the first new record I added felt like a task from 2004, not 2014.
  • Great ecosystem. Because I might not have a friendly account manager at my beck and call, I want a vibrant community of fellow users and experts who blog on industry topics and engage with me. People still buy from people they like.
  • Great design, again. This one is more about the user experience (UX) and information experience (IX) cross-over. The software (your company) understands the core 80% of the tasks I want to do most of the time. It makes sure those tasks are easy to do, and that I know how to do them. Do that well, and I’m prepared to cut you plenty of slack on the 20% which I occasionally have to do which are just, well, tricky.
  • Trust. I want to know that I am engaging with industry experts who know my business. I expect free, vendor independent whitepapers and research. If I see at least some of that, it builds trust and then, yes, I am prepared to part with extra cash for premium content and services such as training.
  • The odd nudge. Even mercenary cloud customers require the equivalent of a soft sales call. A good E-marketing campaign from the moment I sign up with well-placed resources (IX cross-over again) and super-easy conversion from trial options. It works if you have the preceding six items in place. It will probably be ignored without them.

And you want all that for £9.99 a month? Well, the price point varies depending on the product. But value for money is high on my agenda. Inflation is outstripping wages for the fifth year running in the UK. Unless, weirdly, you are an undertaker – for more on that, see this fascinating report from the Office for National Statistics via the BBC.

A final thought. As I read back over this list, there’s not one item which cannot be applied to on-premise software which is paid for upfront. You still have the fundamental SaaS-style expectation that, through interaction with content on your web site, social media, and in your product…

…I know, that you know, what it feels like to be your customer.

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Five help design favourites

“Is it OK to make the help button go straight to the support home page?”

It is great that you are making more of your tech comms content available online. However, jettisoning your users mid-task onto a generic landing page can be frustrating.

The Administration area of a WordPress blog has some really nice help design, which I have used in this post to demonstrate some alternatives.

Here, the help design feels:

  1. Predictable
  2. Clear
  3. Context-sensitive
  4. Linked to in-depth topics
  5. Dynamic and up-to-date

1. Predictable

The help button behaviour is predictable, before I have even selected it. The downward pointing arrow gives me the message that I am a) going to stay exactly where I am and b) going to get some expanded text or options.

Screenshot of WordPress help button

2. Clear

The word “Help” in a decent size relative to the rest of the content on the screen makes it easy to find.

3. Context-sensitive

Once I select Help, the content is contextual.

Screenshot of expanded WordPress help

4. Links to more

I also have access to general help categories. Following these links is going to take me away from the page to the support web site, but I get to a specific area I have chosen while I am still in context.

Screenshot of links in WordPress help

5. Dynamic and up-to-date

Once I select, for example, the Get Help Media category, the links I get look dynamic – updates to the WordPress Support web site may be feeding directly into the display area in help.

Do you have a help design favourite which you would like to use in a help makeover?


The 5 minute eLearning script planner

“We want more help and training as video content, and we want it fast!”

Take a 2-3 minute “how to” tutorial video with voice over as an example. Writing a script has lots of benefits including keeping your video short and on-task. A good quality script comes from a good plan for what you want your video to achieve.

Let’s get visual

I have adapted an excellent teaching resource, The 5 minute Lesson Plan by Ross McGill (@TeacherToolkit), to plan the script. You can download the original from Ross’s blog. This is how it looks, completed, in about 5 minutes.

Image of 5-minute planner

These steps look arduous when you write them in a list, like I have below. That is the beauty of the visual style of this planner. If you respond well to the visual layout, the ideas flow quickly – we are looking for bullets and key words to crystallize your plan.

  • The BIG picture – where does this fit into the video series, learning stage, or overall theme. The big picture answer to “why should I spend 2 minutes of my time on this?”.
  • Objectives – at a lower level, what do you want this specific video to achieve, what I will have learnt after watching it?
  • Engagement – what’s the hook to keep people watching after the first few seconds?
  • Stickability – what techniques can you use to reinforce learning and make it last?
  • AfL – Stands for “assessment for learning”. How can you measure that your video has been successful and that the person watching it is in a better place after watching than before?
  • Words along the way – terminology which may be new to the audience, and/or important to the overall understanding of the topic
  • Differentiation – ignore the levels here, they relate to the UK National Curriculum. But still a good one to consider. How have you handled different levels of prior knowledge and technical ability?
  • Learning Episodes (x4) – you don’t have to use all of these. They are useful to help you to split up “concept” and “task-based” sections of the video, and can map to what you wrote in Objectives.

Moving from plan to execution

If this approach works for you, and you are using a tool like Captivate, you may want to go straight into it and write the full text for your script slide-by-slide using the Text-To-Speech/Closed Captions feature. You can then export to get the full script reviewed. Alternatively, write out the full script in a storyboard style with placeholder graphics and graphic directions.

Whichever approach you take, the idea is to refer back to your visual plan to keep your full text script as tight and relevant as it can be.

Would this planner help you? Do you have other techniques or tools which work well for you?


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