In this blog, we explain why technical documentation is important and how a company and the end customer benefit from high-quality technical documentation. We also take a sneak peek at the challenges of technical documentation and its future.
We interviewed experienced technical documentation professionals, Karl Bjelkesjö and Mats Hermansson. Karl is Director, Technical Communications & Business System Tools at Xylem, and Mats is Technical Information Strategy Manager at SAAB. Karl and Mats shared their personal views and insights about technical documentation with us in this article. They both are also refining industry forward via BOTI (Swedish Industry Organization for Technical Information), more of which is mentioned later in this article.
This article covers the following topics:
- Why is high-quality technical documentation important?
- How do you define good technical documentation?
- In which industries should you pay extra attention to technical documentation?
- How can other company divisions support the production of technical documentation?
- What do you see as the biggest challenge in the documentation industry?
- What is BOTI?
Why is high-quality technical documentation important?
Technical information leads to increased customer satisfaction and optimal use of product. That's really at the core of why one would pursue high quality technical documentation. In some industries, this is regulated in relation to product liability, it’s a requirement.
How does producing high-quality technical documentation benefit a company?
Technical documentation gives businesses a competitive advantage because it improves the user experience as well as enables sales. Technical information needs to be readily available throughout the customer journey. In a nutshell, high-quality technical documentation is about creating a good experience for the user and also acts as leverage in sales in the quotation process.
In my opinion, technical documentation benefits a company in many ways, one of which is good will. When you see good documentation, you also see that this is a brand or product or company that you can rely on. Another important factor is that you don't have to have such a big support organization if you have good documentation. And altogether, in the end, good documentation improves the companies’ competitiveness.
So, I think there are many different ways that documentation benefits the company.
What are the benefits for the end user?
First and foremost, I would say the benefits are its ease of use. Of course, if you can use the product easily, efficiently and safely, it's really a big advantage.
Well, the benefits are ensuring the optimal use of the product, as well as choosing the right product for your needs.
How do you define good technical documentation? Are there any certain criteria?
Personally, I would define good technical documentation as documentation that follows a style guide and helps fulfill the overall goals of the documentation, which might be different depending on the industry and the subject matter, etc. But, really, following a style guide that helps fulfill those goals would be how I define good technical documentation.
And when it comes to the criteria. Certainly readability, which also ensures good usability of the content, and translatability. Is the content developed to enable communication with global audiences? Portability is also important. How flexible is the content to be leveraged in an omni-channel world? Can you share your content with audiences in multiple channels where your customers are? A further criteria would be reusability. In the case of the organization, making the most of their investment, if it’s possible to reuse already developed content in future initiatives. So, readability, usability, translatability, portability, and reusability: customer experience and efficiency in operations, and the ability to communicate in omni-channel or multiple channels.
I think it has to be objective and fact based, and it should not contain any marketing information. It should also be easy to access and well structured, as well as easy to understand. Good language, of course, is one important thing.
Do you have a translation project regarding technical documentation? Let’s talk!
In which industries should you pay extra attention to technical documentation?
Well, it depends on the complexity and the need for safety and security when you're working with a product. I mean, it could be like IKEA, where they have provided their technical information completely without words, which is as easy to understand as possible.
I don't think that there are any industries that can really neglect to mention technical information and technical documentation.
For example, there are the software companies that have API as an integral part of the product value proposition, where customers can develop their own applications leveraging the application programmable interfaces. Those software companies would need to pay extra attention to their API developer documentation where the documentation is really the product. So, you need to support your customers, your developers to be successful in leveraging the product. Therefore, in API documentation you certainly need to pay attention.
Then there are regulated industries, the machinery industry, and so forth. Those industries need to pay extra attention to technical documentation and translation, especially all the documentation in relation to product liability. There's a legal aspect in those industries that are regulated.
For example, there is a Machinery directive which is one of the main legislations governing the harmonization of essential health and safety requirements at EU level. Of course, there might also be local regulations that require even more attention to technical documentation.
How can other company divisions support the production of technical documentation?
In my experience, it’s very important that other parts of a company understand what technical documentation is and why it’s important, because it's not always that easy to get everyone to understand.
Previously, I worked at a software company where the software developers thought they were at the goal when they had delivered the program, which was then just for other people to use. We had a long journey to get these software developers to understand the importance of technical information and that they have to provide support with it.
When it comes to technical tech writers, they may come with difficult questions or with a lot of questions, and those questions may sometimes be amateur questions. In such cases, it is very important that the experts provide answers to those questions so that the technical writers can use these answers to create really good technical documentation.
Another thing is terminology. Tech writers are often in the latter part of the workflow in a company which is independent of its industry. For instance, this can start in an industry with designers, where it may be the purchasers who decide a specific term for a product or part of a product. And then maybe the designers and the purchasers refer to the same part differently.
Consequently, the item ends up with different names in different systems, so a tech writer should try to have some consistent terminology there, which could be really challenging.
So, in an optimal situation, I would say that a tech writer should be included in the purchase and design processes as well in order to decide terms. It would be really much better for the end users if they didn’t have two or three or five synonyms for the same word.
When it comes to supporting the production of technical documentation, I would say get engaged. Developing preferred methods is a team sport. You can support events to learn what a great unboxing experience looks like or a methodology development. By working with technical writers as a team to ensure that documentation is as good as it can be, and then providing review feedback in a timely manner, that’s certainly a vision for any technical writer.
Technical documentation is an integral part of the product, not the product or service and then the documentation. The documentation is part of the product or service. From a customer perspective they’re all within the same customer experience.
What should companies with international operations consider when it comes to technical documentation?
Well, I think there are a few things, but one is the language. Of course, if you don't translate that, then you need to make sure that you have a really simple language. As an example, in the aviation industry where I am based, we usually use Simplified Technical English, which is a really simplified way to write English. And that’s what makes it possible for someone who is not trained so much in English to understand the instructions. Therefore, it’s easier to have more of a single tone in all your documentation because it also makes it easier to translate.
Another thing is that you have to be conscious of Internet access. We tend to think that we have Internet access all over the world, but there are places where we don't have such access, so you have to have technical information solutions that can be used offline.
There are several different writing guides, simplified languages, and structures for different industries. Therefore, I think everybody could find what is suitable for their business.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the documentation industry?
Well, there are a number of challenges and, in the coming year, I think some of them are questions as well.
But one that will set the base for the challenge is the technical evolution. That is, you need to have new platforms for technical information delivery, and also that younger people are expecting technical information and technical documentation in different ways than before. I mean, when I was young, the only possible means to get to know how to use or how to repair something was to read the manual that came with the product. But now you can use Google for that. You can get your documentation to show up immediately when you have a problem, and you use more or less the documentation to solve the problem for you immediately.
I see that requirements on turnaround time are changing. A lot of companies are transforming to agile product development and agile processes instead of waterfall executions, where you work tirelessly for months and months, and perhaps years, and then launch the product to the market. Then we see that product development is shifting to any minimum viable product out in the market, getting feedback and working with customers to improve the product. And the impact on developing content is really that turnaround time requirements are increasing. So that means a content development team now needs to release content more frequently, with smaller batches of content released more often. What used to be months of development is now weeks.
So that's a challenge. Releasing can be expensive, and that's something that teams need to think about: how they can reduce the costs while being able to integrate content continuously to support the continuous integration of features as the product evolves.
Agile transformation goes beyond technology product development. There's not a team in any industry that's not talking about agile transformation and so forth. For example, training content, technical documentation, marketing collaterals, the web, ecommerce, and so forth. They’re all influenced by it.
How about the future of the industry, what changes can we expect?
One thing that is making releases expensive is the layout: doing the layout work over and over again in publications. So, one trend is moving towards content as a service in e-commerce, which could be known as Headless CMS perhaps. By applying the layout in the front of the application, whether it's a help center or training package or an e-commerce platform, the platform itself, with the front end, will apply the layout and the content developers will focus on developing the content.
So, content as a service and Headless CMS are certainly a trend. Instead of each author working on the layout in their authoring environment, the layout work has moved downstream in the process.
Another trend would be the single sourcing of content: reusing content across a product or services development initiatives. Companies are looking to leverage their investment in content. Leveraging digital assets that have been developed, leveraging those over and over again, whether it's content management systems, translation management systems or common databases. I wouldn't call it a trend in 2021; I would say it's a movement that's been ongoing for more than a decade.
The third trend would be supporting IoT in informational things where products and services move to the cloud. Moving away from paper to digital solutions is certainly the future for the industry.
Finally, the fourth trend would be internationalization, where products become connected and the marketplace becomes global. There's an opportunity to reach customers in all parts of the world.
That is one of the goals that we have for the coming years: to look forward and really see what changes or what challenges there are for us. There’s a lot of discussion about all those new buzzwords like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality and digital twin.
So, it's really not easy to anticipate how those things will affect the need for technical information and the ways of producing and consuming technical documentation, technical information. So, it's not a single thing, I think. But it's a cluster of many different new technologies and faster evolution that we have to keep up with.
What is BOTI?
In short, BOTI is a meeting place for companies where we collaborate in order to get better technical information in Swedish companies. BOTI supports good technical information in Swedish companies, in all languages, and of course in translations.
One thing that is important for us is that tech writers or the technical information business is often only a small part of a company. It could be one tech writer in a 100-person company, so it's not so easy to emphasize on that expertise they have and to improve if you are on your own and have no one else to be guided by. So that that's why we think it’s important we have the organization to help each other and also to help companies, and of course, to move forward in the technical information industry.
We have a lot of business going on: we have the conference once a year and we have a lot of webinars that are actually free for everyone to attend. And we have a lot of work groups as well, where you can have discussions with people from different companies and thereby create a really good network.
The goal of the organization is to really convey how high-quality documentation adds value and how it can increase the competitiveness of a business.
The main language of the organization is Swedish, but everyone is welcome. For example, the annual conference and webpage are in Swedish. So, to get the most out of it, it will be useful to have some fluency in Swedish.
Learn more about BOTI here.
How can you become a member?
It’s easy. Just fill out the form with your company’s information here. When a company becomes a member, then everybody in that company is regarded as members.