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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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.


This little feature went to market – does the tech author survive or strategise?

Here’s the scenario: You have a new feature in your software on its way to market. You are the lead tech author/information designer working on it.

Do you..

a) go into survival mode?

“Must generate help pages before release date”


b) take a strategic approach?

“Remind me why we are doing this” – in a top-down approach starting with a holistic view of the customer, then narrowing to your users and content.

Taking a strategic approach

Starting with customer-centric questions. For the new feature, do you have a sense of:

  • What the demand for this feature is in the marketCustomer centric and user centric sticky notes leading to smiley face
  • How your sales channel thinks it is going to drive revenue
  • The user stories or user “pain” this is solving
  • Anticipated customer service/support issues
  • What marketing collateral and social media campaigns are planned around it
  • What the impact on training or certification programmes is

These feed into user-centric questions. For new content, which you are authoring or designing, do you have ideas for:

  • Who might be able to reuse my content
  • At what point in the customer journey is it accessed
  • What analytics and user research data do I have to inform my decisions
  • What are the relevant costs/benefits of different output types
  • Is my content going to be consumed on a mobile device
  • What can I do to promote and engage responses to my content

Or do you..

c) combine modes a) and b)?

Shifting from survival to strategic

From recent experience, my impression is that we are shifting away from survival and towards strategic. We are doing it out of necessity – driven by smaller cross-functional teams and shorter release cycles. But I hope we are also doing it by design – the content becomes more relevant, innovative and in synch with the customer’s and user’s relationship to your organisation and your software.

Did you answer a), b) or c)? Do you have any items to add to the customer- and user-centric question lists?