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Part V: Influencing the content experience

Series: Value arguments for docs and tech comm

by Tom Johnson on Dec 28, 2017
categories: technical-writing

Content experience — influencing the content across all touchpoints in the customer's journey — is another area where tech writers can add more value. This roots the tech writer's contributions in content development activities, not merely information flow. However, given the expanded bandwidth that cross-functional contributions require, these efforts require backing from customer satisfaction groups in the organization. Additionally, despite the good fit of docs to influence the customer experience, companies still primarily want someone to write clear docs, not necessarily someone to address the customer experience.

Content experience across all customer touchpoints

There’s a trend in the industry for tech writers to expand as content experience influencers or content strategists that look at every touchpoint the customer has with information on his or her journey. The idea is for tech writers to stop focusing singularly on documentation and instead look at how customers interact with content at every interaction in both pre- and post-sales scenarios, structured on a journey that “describes the process from start to finish, takes into account the business impact of optimizing the journey, and lays out a commonsense, feasible sequence of initiatives” (The Truth About Customer Experience).

Here’s a sample graphic showing a customer’s journey:

In this example, instead of focusing on different groups, we might look at the specific touchpoints irrespective of the groups responsible for the interactions. In this sample scenario, first, app developers might do web searches that orient them toward a solution. They probably land on marketing pages that provide more detail. The business development group might have phone calls with product managers to discuss plans, needs, and timelines. The journey then transitions to developers discussing with field engineers about specific coding needs, frameworks, and technical details. The developers then start coding their app. If they need help, they might post questions in a forum or reach out directly to support. After development, they test their apps using testing services and tools. They submit their app through a submission console, periodically receiving messages about the app’s status. Finally, after their app is live, they might update their app with another release.

At each of these touchpoints, the customer usually interacts with content of some kind. (Sometimes the content isn’t written text or code — it might be a conversation. But that conversation should align with the written documentation.)

This examination of content touchpoints, as plotted along a customer journey (rather than simply looking at the groups that use documentation) gives us more of a framework for analyzing the value of docs. It helps us align with the user experience, which feeds into a larger discussion about customer satisfaction and corporate brand. With the journey in mind, the technical writer might ask:

  • What content do people find online during searches?
  • What content do business development and sales people use when interacting with customers?
  • What content do field engineers use to help get clients up and running?
  • What content do marketers use in campaigns for the product?
  • What content do developers use when coding their apps? What paths are they taking within this content?
  • What content do support agents provide when interacting with forums and email inquiries?
  • What content do customers experience in the UI, through on-screen text, alerts, error messages, and other messaging?
  • What content do customers receive from email messages from the systems they interact with?

The recurring question is where content and the customer intersect:

Given how broad customer interactions and content might be, looking at where customers interact with content helps us limit the scope. By working on the content used in these journey touchpoints, technical writers can help drive a more consistent, rich customer experience.

MindTouch’s Ari Hoffman calls this new, emerging role for technical writers Content Experience. Hoffman describes the Content Experience Influencer role as follows:

This role [Content Experience Influencer] is not defined or exclusively owned by Product, Marketing, Sales, Support, or Success. Content Experience often lives in different departments depending on organizational structure, or as an independent vertical that manages all content produced by relevant departments.

Content Experience is the evolution of content strategy blending with technical communication. It’s an understanding that your content provides self-service experiences not only for your customers, but for potential prospects researching and/or buying your product as well.

If you understand how your customers and prospects are accessing, consuming, and sharing your technical content, then you can inform Marketing on campaigns to produce, Sales on strategic talking points, Success on how to scale their efforts, and even Product on weaknesses in the current offering (amongst many many other value props). — Announcing 2017’s TOP 25 Content Experience Influencers and TOP 200 Strategists

The goal of the content experience influencer is to improve the customer’s experience, not just to provide documentation for a product. Embracing this goal would shift the focus of technical writers in a dramatic way. It would force us to interact in these other spaces (Marketing, Training, Support, Field Engineering, etc.) to be successful.

Given tech comm’s key role across all these groups, it makes sense to ground customer experience improvement in the tech comm role. I imagine this is why a champion of customer experience like Ari Hoffman can be so interested in technical communication. If you want to influence customer experience, what better way to do so than through the group that has the most impact on customer experience? Tech comm is the pivotal group.

Remember our earlier graphic, where documentation was at the center and all groups somehow intersected it? We can tweak it a bit:

If you want to improve the customer experience, work through documentation.

It’s not as if playing a customer experience role is at odds with a documentation role. Most likely, the more effort we expend toward improving the customer experience, the better the documentation becomes. Just as I argued with information flow, when we interact in these other spaces, the more aware we become of the needs of these groups, and we adjust our content to meet their needs. This, in turn, makes the documentation more valuable to these groups, and they begin to use it more because it directly meets their needs. The interactions feed on each other.

Interacting in these other spaces is ultimately an extension of user advocacy; it helps us understand our users and their needs more completely. Another MindTouch writer, Lily M., explains:

To create a content experience that ultimately leads to customer success, the technical writer has no choice but to step in the customer’s shoes, to become the customer and to consider all perspectives. — Time to Get Your Tech Writer out of the Closet

If we want to understand our users, we have to understand their entire journeys, not just at a single touchpoint (such as during app development). Limiting our understanding of the user at a single touchpoint only gives us a myopic, distorted vision of their needs. All content derives meaning from its surrounding context. We need to understand the context of the customer journey to make sense of any single touchpoint.

Looking beyond the scope of the help guide or reference manual to assess the content in these other channels expands the domain of technical writers in an organization. They are no longer just technical writers but rather content experience influencers.

I think the term content experience is really just a variation of content strategy, which is a trend that has more weight and recognition in the industry. Sarah O’Keefe explains how content strategy looks at ways content integrates across the organization:

Content and data need to flow across an organization. For example, CAD files produced by engineering are used in technical and marketing documents. Procedures created in technical communications are used by the training group. Knowledge base information moves into technical communications. Inventory information is connected to repair procedures. A focus on integration means understanding where information originates and how to share it efficiently and accurately with the people who need it. — Content strategy for technical communication

She uses a graphic to emphasize the point:

We’re drawing similar pictures with both content experience and content strategy. While the roles overlap, content strategy focuses more on content while customer experience focuses more on the customer. But the two can’t entirely be separated. (In general, content strategy establishes value by lowering the costs of content production and publication — lowing costs through localization, content re-use, standardized terminology, and more. In short, content strategy receives its value by being more strategic about content. I should probably have an entire section on content strategy, but I don’t.)

Challenges with Content Experience

It’s easy to theorize this expanding role of content influence on paper, but how practical is it? A few months ago, MindTouch published their 2017 list of top 25 content experience influencers, selected by contest through from nominations from users. Before MindTouch began the contest, I had some email exchanges with Ari (who I believe runs the contest). He was excited to share the Content Experience Influencer role description with me and wanted to gauge my reaction. But at the time, I wasn’t that persuaded about the role. I explained:

I wish I could speak from more personal experience about how I’ve implemented a consistent customer experience across multiple touchpoints (Marketing, Docs, Support, and more). But it’s a lot for one to tackle. Usually, tech docs has its hands full just doing tech docs. I don’t see how someone can actually scale their bandwidth into these other areas as an individual contributor.

I agree with the idea and philosophy behind this role. Don’t get me wrong. But I’m not sure this topic speaks to me in a way that I could champion it like you might envision. … I’m afraid I might end up taking a subversive perspective on this one. In my experience, companies expect technical writers to be individual contributors. To fill the role described here, one would have to be a strategic generalist, I think.

It seemed like a good idea, but who can muster the bandwidth to execute such a cross-organizational role? I can barely keep afloat with my own documentation-specific needs, let alone the content in 5 other domains. Despite actually making the list of top 25 content experience influencers, I hadn’t considered myself a content experience influencer or strategist nor did I write much about interacting across these other customer touchpoints. (But I’m happy to be included.)

How do you overcome the problems of bandwidth? Sure, the content I write can play a significant cross-functional role in other groups. But isn’t that their responsibility? Shouldn’t they simply pull from the docs as needed and craft their own content touchpoints? If I spend energy looking over their content, how will I ever finish the documentation I need to write?

Another obstacle to this model surfaces from the structure of corporate budgets (as Redish noted). Budgets usually don’t span across groups. If your tech writers are rooted in Group X, why will Group X care about the financial impact on Groups A, B, and C? Sure, the tech writer can play an influential role in the customer’s content experience throughout the customer journey, but how do you make this shift when your primary responsibility is merely documentation for Group X?

And what about the argument that, if every individual group acts on its own interests within the organization, theoretically the interests should align under the larger umbrella of improved customer experience?

To play the customer experience influencer role, do tech writers need to be grouped at a high enough level in the organization that our efforts span across divisions and budgetary lines? Do we need to be grouped in with customer experience teams?

Clearly, there are a lot of questions about how to execute this content influencer role. If there’s a group responsible for customer experience, for overall customer ratings and satisfaction and brand, that group will likely have the most interest in our cross-functional role. Somewhere, some group in the company is concerned about overall customer satisfaction and experience. By helping them see that documentation and other technical content is an intersecting point for all these groups, and hence pivotal to influence this experience, we might get more buy-in to play this more cross-functional role. We can get support and backing because we’re addressing a problem they’re concerned about.

However, even if we were to see customer satisfaction increase, it would be difficult to correlate the improvement with a specific person’s role. With so many phases, interactions, and facets of the customer journey, how can we ever claim that our contributions (among so many others’ contributions in the organization) made a dominant impact? And if we can’t measure the impact, how can we communicate the value of our role? We are always eager to take credit for improvements, but would we also stick our neck out and take the blame for a poor customer experience and rating?

I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic, and have come to the realization that I have much to learn. Some questions I have are as follows:

  1. What does the end-to-end customer journey map look like, and what are the touchpoints that involve content?
  2. Which groups in the organization care about the overall customer experience, satisfaction, and brand? What are my interactions with those groups?
  3. How can I efficiently interact in groups outside my organizational domain? What’s the best medium for interacting — email threads, regular meetings, product launch reviews?
  4. What happens if I lose bandwidth by trying to solve content problems that other groups are ultimately responsible for?
  5. How can I measure and track improvements in customer experience given the many contributing factors and causes behind the experience?

If there’s value, why isn’t there demand?

The trend towards broadening the technical writer’s scope has been an ongoing trend for years. What started out as technical writing transitioned to technical communication. Now we extend further into content strategy and content experience. The problem is that despite efforts to broaden documentation’s tentacles and reach into these other areas to provide more value, the industry still seeks the content development skills of a technical writer. If content strategy or content experience were really so valuable to organizations, wouldn’t we see a widespread shift in job descriptions for companies targeting this role instead of a technical writer? Are companies merely naive about the value such a role can play in their organization? Do they not understand the resources they ought to need and hire? Or do they recognize the need but expect some other group to oversee customer experience and strategic objectives across groups?

The silence in the job market around “content strategist” or “content experience” seems to pose serious questions of value around transitioning in this direction. If it really were valuable to organizations, why don’t we see more demand for it? Why aren’t companies posting jobs for this role?

Further, if this shift represents a key move towards establishing value, why haven’t “content strategy” or “content experience” garnered the attention of academic researchers? I couldn’t find any Tech Comm Journal articles that contain a discussion of these topics. Astonishingly, “content strategy” appears in the title of just 1 Technical Communication journal article, and it discusses the challenge of creating a Body of Knowledge given the interdisciplinary nature of tech comm.

In many ways, companies value what they want to hire. If you review job postings, companies want to hire technical writers to create documentation for their products, not content strategists or content experience influencers. For example, a typical description for a tech writer requires a “Portfolio that shows both your ability to explain difficult concepts and your skill at creating easy-to-follow, comprehensive procedures” (technical writer, Aviatrix). With this in mind, I’ll take one more crack at the value question, looking at how we can deepen the value of the documentation we create to align with the demands in the job market.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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