February 2004

From the Director

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

Dear Friends,

“We always make our deadlines. No matter what.” We hear the deadline refrain throughout the industry. Making deadlines all too frequently defines the success of information developers. Deadlines matter, of course, but do they count beyond all other measures of success? What about the aspects of quality that are more difficult to measure? Usability, accuracy, efficiency are all critical elements in the quality equation.

One way we identify success is by examining carefully what we reward. Consider these elements of reward:

  • having documents ready by deadline, even if it means working overtime
  • exhibiting few or no grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors
  • using the publishing templates flawlessly
  • winning the acceptance of product developers and their managers

Information developers win kudos for getting these elements right. We reward their diligence in mastering the myriad mechanical tasks that constitute the publication-development process. In fact, we reward many activities that are never noticed by the customers. Although lacking customer impact, these elements are easy to track and measure. In fact, an undue focus on mechanics robs us of the time needed to make our information genuinely successful.

How might we consider more customer-valued measurements of success? More customer-oriented definitions of quality should take precedence over the mechanical aspects of information development. Consider, for example, these elements:

  • following an efficient, cost-effective process
  • estimating and tracking the time required to perform information-development tasks so that resources are properly allocated
  • taking advantage of user and task analysis to ensure that the right information is created in the first place
  • using standardized language and format to reduce the cost of translation and enhance readability
  • testing procedures against products to ensure accuracy
  • testing procedures and other information with actual users

Each of these elements represents a process approach to success. Yet, we find only a few information-development organizations consistently pursuing and rewarding a process- and customer-oriented definition of individual and departmental success.

Daphne Walmer, director of technical publications at Medtronic, puts it well: “We have to expand our definition of quality. It has to be in the eyes of the customer. We have spent a lot of time on things the customers don’t notice. It is really difficult to look this fact in the face.”

Managers like Walmer don’t dismiss the importance of getting the mechanics right and meeting the deadlines. What we’ve understood, however, is that mechanics are not sufficient to define success. In fact, we need to pursue with rigor the elimination or drastic reduction of the time devoted to mechanics. Multi-language content management, minimalism, plain language, structured writing, and automated publishing are only a few of the tools at our disposal to reduce the time spent on activities that have little impact on the customer’s needs.

If we can reduce the time that the hygiene effects of mechanics consume, we can find the time to spend on customer-facing activities. We might avoid the litany of complaints that we “don’t have enough time” or “no one will let us.” Indeed, a focus on the customer is one of the only ways to avoid outsourcing our work to inexpensive, offshore providers. Anyone can handle the mechanics; only knowledgeable, active information developers will become experts in the user experience.

I’d like to challenge all of our readers. How do you define quality that makes a difference-quality that is noticeable to customers and senior management alike? We would like to produce a quality manifesto that helps us redefine our organizational role and guarantees highly visible success. Please let me know what your contributions will be. CIDMIconNewsletter