Surviving Change with Minimalism
In 2004, the Technical Communications team at Kentrox, a manufacturer of network access equipment, faced pressure from three sides:
- The staffing level was well below the standard engineer-to-writer ratio.
- Competition in the market lowered profit margins.
- A large suite of legacy documentation needed updating and re-branding with the current corporate logo.
Using tips and techniques learned from Dr. JoAnn Hackos’s Minimalism seminar, held in Seattle in August, 2004, the team re-examined some long-standing corporate assumptions about user documentation requirements and re-investigated user requirements. As a result, the staff found innovative ways to reduce costs, speed up development, and create more usable information products.
This article will discuss the team’s efforts and show examples of how their knowledge of the principles of minimalism helped them survive.
A Perfect Storm
The Kentrox Technical Publications team faced these daunting problems in early 2004:
- Limited staffing with a rise in new product introductions meant less time for individual development projects.
- A competitive market compelled us to seek alternatives to the traditional approach of supplying printed manual sets with every product.
- Maintenance work was increasing with the demand for legacy product updates and re-branding to the new corporate logo.
In response to these challenges, Kentrox writers attended a seminar on Minimalism1 to gain insight into streamlining the documentation. Kentrox also hired a third technical communicator in mid-2004.
Simplifying Project Documentation
To reduce the time spent planning individual re-branding projects, the team developed a “one-page doc plan,” basically a “fill-in-the-blank” form in Adobe Acrobat. The PDF file was circulated to the impacted parties and could be marked up or approved via e-mail.
The main section of the plan was a checklist (refer to Figure 1) of documentation changes, including features, Change Request (CR) fixes, re-branding, etc. A section for current and new part numbers simplified the presentation of the Engineering Change Order (ECO) portion of the plan, while the primary reviewers were listed at the bottom.
One key management goal was to be able to train the newest addition to the documentation team in minimalism concepts. Proof of success was supplied in two ways: the new writer was able to develop her own one-page planning documents, as well as new one-page documents, soon after joining the staff.
One of the first opportunities to apply Minimalist techniques came when a legacy product received a software update that changed its factory defaults. Due to evolving standards, the original default values no longer worked in the majority of new network environments. Rather than change the default settings, many customers simply returned the units when they plugged in the cables and saw red LEDs. Some customers even went as far as to write
“Defective” or “DOA” on the products with an indelible marker. This problem resulted in a substantial revenue loss over a period of several months.
The company clearly needed an immediate solution to the problem. Since software development, testing, and roll-out to manufacturing would take several weeks, we considered a user documentation update.
To better understand the problem, the technical support engineers and technical writers looked at every aspect of the installation process using real products and live network connections. The team soon discovered that the customers who returned the units had apparently not read the user manuals. Had the customers followed the procedures in the documentation, they would have changed the obsolete default values during installation.
Handling the product revealed an interesting opportunity. We noticed a 2 x 4 inch rectangular indentation in the top of the unit’s case, which was a perfect spot for a label.
A conspicuous information label (refer to Figure 2) was then developed to fit in that indentation, and was released to production within the same week.
The label turned out to be an ideal solution in at least three ways:
1. It provided the critical information needed by the product installer-no more, no less.
2. It could be developed, reviewed, and put into production rapidly and at minimal cost.
3. It allowed us to reschedule user documentation updates to coincide with the software patch, which took the pressure off writers and reviewers.
The label was an immediate success. There have been virtually no product returns or calls to technical support since its introduction.
Maintenance and Rebranding
The team now examines whether any cost-cutting measures can be implemented for each maintenance and rebranding project and incorporates this into the planning process.
The following is taken into consideration for each document:
- What exactly is the document being shipped with and is the customer receiving duplicates?
- Is the document necessary for the task at hand or is it used as reference material?
- Is the material contained in the document being duplicated or does it actually belong elsewhere?
- If duplicated, can the material from separate documents be combined into one?
Asking these questions aided the team in determining what kinds of cost-cutting measures could be taken.
By examining the Bill of Materials (BOM) for a set of plug-in Channel Service Units (CSUs) and the shelf unit to which they are mounted, it was discovered that customers were receiving printed Operator Manuals for each shelf unit and each plug-in CSU they ordered. Since a shelf unit can hold up to 12 plug-in CSUs, customers could conceivably be receiving 13 Operator Manuals.
In addition, the shelf unit supported multiple products, so documentation for all of the supported product types was included with each ordered shelf.
The team decided that the customer would only receive printed manuals with the shelf unit because it powers and runs the plug-in CSUs; plug-ins cannot operate without the shelf.
The plug-in CSUs would ship with a new half-page instruction sheet that explains the minimum tasks needed to perform the installation of the card. In the event the installer needs more detailed configuration or reference information, the instruction sheet also notes the relevant Operator Manual that is shipped with the shelf unit and available from the Kentrox web site.
The value of cutting back on the unnecessary copies of manuals can be quantified as follows:
- User documentation printing costs per plug-in card: only $0.10 (previously $1.94)
- Profit margin increase per order of one 12-slot shelf and 12 plug-in CSUs: $22.78
- Not inundating the customer with 13 copies of the same manual: priceless
Product Set Cost Reduction
The team was able to turn the introduction of a new product into a third cost-reduction opportunity. The assumption from product management was that because the new product was a straightforward derivative, the previous documentation would serve as a template.
However, in planning the project, the technical publications team identified an opportunity for significant cost reduction.
The “assumed” documentation suite involved a user’s guide and a reference guide in PDF format only, supplied on a documentation CD-ROM. Other electronic deliverables included online help files and a README.TXT file. The final significant piece was a printed, 24-page Setup Guide.
The cost of the CD-ROM was $3.00, and the cost of the printed Setup Guide was another $1.25. The publications team saw an opportunity to cut documentation costs by replacing the Setup Guide with a simpler document and began investigating.
In addition, the team had gathered anecdotal evidence that the 24-page installation guide inferred that the installation would be lengthy and complicated. This unintended message was not in synch with the marketing team’s positioning of the product as easy-to-use and easy-to-install. The team believed that resolving this contradiction would be a key success factor guiding the planning process.
In analyzing the printed Setup Guide, the team used four key Minimalist principles:
1. Learning by Doing-Choose an action-oriented approach.
2. Supporting Real Tasks-Anchor the tool in the task domain.
3. Learning from Mistakes-Support error recognition and recovery.
4. Locating Information Quickly-Support finding, studying, and doing.
The team eventually devised a folded 11 x 17 inch Installation Instructions sheet to replace the 24-page Setup Guide. The sheet was divided into five key tasks, using an over-sized numbering scheme, and all sub-tasks and bullets were gerund-based and in active voice.
Printing costs were reduced from $1.25 to $0.15. There was also a significant usability benefit in replacing a book of installation procedures with a less-intimidating folded sheet of paper. The feedback from the user community has been positive, but the key determinant will be reduced calls to the Technical Assistance call center. Further data will be gathered regarding call statistics.
Publications teams must embrace change in order to remain competitive. Most teams face a continual challenge to reduce costs, add value, and reinforce product positioning and marketing literature. Teams must fight the comfortable habit of planning each new set of documentation deliverables based solely on the status quo. Instead, the best way to survive change is to add value by continually looking for ways to achieve demonstrable cost savings. Minimalism can help guide that search.
The Kentrox team was able to reduce costs and increase quality by studying user needs, researching all associated cost drivers, and producing new document sets or deliverables that were focused and highly usable. As more user feedback is collected, the team looks forward to further activities that will cut costs and increase quality.
1. Minimalism is the attempt to provide only the required information to a given audience. It encompasses documentation content, structure, format, layout, and distribution media, and can significantly reduce development time and printing costs
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