The Death of Technical Publications As We Know It or 9 Strategic Reasons to Move to Live Product Content

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December 2011

The Death of Technical Publications As We Know It
or 9 Strategic Reasons to Move to Live Product Content

CIDMIconNewsletterHoward Schwartz, SDL

The Internet and mobile channels are fundamentally changing how customers and prospects expect to find and engage with information related to a company’s products. Marketing organizations have already begun embracing these new mediums with personalized web experiences, video, and mobile apps. By contrast, technical documentation or “Information Development” organizations have been laggards in responding to these changing expectations of customers and prospects. In fact, the expectations of customers and prospects have changed so dramatically, the notion of the traditional “technical publication” has become obsolete. Hence, the title of this paper is “the death of technical publications as we know it.”

The technical publication is traditionally a static one-way deliverable that is completed and shipped as part of a new product introduction (NPI). For this reason, the classic “tech doc” is no longer relevant for this new generation of customer experience that is increasingly shaped by the internet, mobile channel, and social media. Customers, and even prospects, expect to rapidly find just the right information at their fingertips via the internet or mobile device. They expect that information to be tailored to their questions, and visually presented, and they expect their interaction with that information to be two-way. Organizations that are mindful of these changes in customer expectations are responding strategically, by moving to a notion of product content that is dynamic, interactive, and personalized. In the following example, we contrast this new notion of “live product content” with the more traditional one of “technical documentation.

Product Information and Customer Experience

Product-related information is critical at most stages of a customer’s journey. Prospects want information about a product when comparing and buying products. Once a product is purchased, technical documentation is required to learn how to initially use the product. If the customer has difficulty using the product or the product is not working properly, the customer may need technical documentation for support. To provide an outstanding experience for their customer, a company must provide quick access to relevant, up-to-date technical information in compelling forms. By doing so, companies can increase revenues, improve out-of-box experience (OOBE), increase self-service, drive down call center calls, and ultimately increase repeat buying and word of mouth recommendations.

The Problem with Technical Documentation Today

Today, companies typically create technical documentation in the form of books or PDF documents that are shipped on a CD along with a product or are posted as static HTML pages on a website. Some companies generate “help files” that ship with the product or are posted online. These current methods of documentation have several limitations (see Table 1).

Traits of Traditional Documentation Challenges Presented by Traditional Documentation Business Impact
Static Current documentation processes make it difficult or impossible to make incremental updates available to customers. Customers find outdated information in documentation and may not be able to achieve self-service and therefore make a call to the call center. Out-of-date information may also affect purchasing decisions.
One Size Fits All Documentation is written in a generic manner and can’t be tailored to product needs, experience, or skill level of the customer. Customers are frustrated with extraneous information that is not relevant. Experience may lead a customer to abandon documentation and pick up the phone to the call center.
Text Heavy Documentation is “text-only.” Customers are increasingly expecting visual presentations of technical information in interactive or animated graphics and videos.
Inconsistent Content Current processes create content that is inconsistent across products and business organizations. Customers find multiple inconsistent sources of information and can’t solve their problems.
Can’t Find Information Customers often can’t find information they want because a search produces too many results and the customer can’t find the right answer to his or her question. Customer frustration mounts and the customer leaves the company website in search of information elsewhere.

 Table 1: Documentation Limitations

Product Content, By Contrast

To improve customer experience, companies are moving towards a practice of what might be labeled “live product content”—see Figure 1 on page 152. It no longer makes sense to call this merely “documentation” since that term implies a static, one-time publication that does not change in response to a customer’s context. Live product content offers a number of valuable business benefits that cannot be achieved with traditional documentation.

Quick, Easy Access

Live product content is written in modular form so that it can be assembled on the fly in response to the particular nature and context of the customer inquiry. If a customer has a specific question, it is ineffective to provide either a large document with hundreds of results or provide extraneous information that is not relevant to his or her question. Because live product content is written in structured and modular form, it is possible to more precisely target just the right topic of information for the customer. The modularity also makes it possible for the customer to find the right information quicker, not having to search through long documents or scan through dozens of pages that have been already pre-generated.

Targeted & Tailored Information

Product content can be assembled dynamically on-the-fly. Live product content is not static and already pre-generated, sitting on the website, but is delivered in a moment in response to the customer’s question. As a result, the information can be tailored to that customer’s interest and background. What one knows about a customer can expand or contract depending on a particular company or the customer involved. Some companies that have integrated CRM systems know a great deal about customers who have logged into the site, including what product they have purchased, what language they speak, how technical they are, and what their interests and hobbies may be. All of this information provides a context to narrow down the content that is delivered when customers does a search. Because the content is modular and conditions can be applied dynamically to filter the results, the content can be tailored based on how much information is known about a customer. Some companies develop “personas” to describe customer profiles or “types” of their customers. These personas can be used when developing content.

Content Stays Current

Live product content is fresh and up-to-date. In the traditional documentation model, PDFs or web pages were created at the time of a new product launch and not frequently updated. Any mistakes in the documentation remain there until a new version of the product is shipped. By contrast, by using a database of modular ‘live’ content that engages and interacts with a customer, content can be refreshed at any time, never becoming stale or outdated. If a customer support team discovers ways to work around an issue or a better way of describing how a task is developed, the documentation can be updated at the modular level. This ensures that updated information can be made available immediately to customers, and the customer will not be misled by outdated information. With this ability, companies have the perfect opportunity to increase customer self-service and deflect calls from the call center.

Visually Engaging

Live product content can be visually interesting. Traditional documentation has been static and text heavy. However, customers have increasingly become accustomed to watching video over the internet and on mobile devices. It is no longer adequate to write down the steps of a procedure. Customers will go to YouTube instead of a company’s website and watch someone else’s video illustrating how to troubleshoot a problem. The use of this type of customer-generated content is useful (as discussed below), but companies want to own and control what is said about their products. Enabling video to be easily incorporated into online documentation and managed easily is thus key to customer experience.

Two-Way Interaction

Live product content can enable feedback loops among customers, writers, and product managers. Traditional documentation was one-way only—writers would write the documentation and publish it. They had no way of knowing whether any of the content was read and, if it was, whether it was helpful. Live product content changes all of this! Now that product information can be stored as modules in a database, it is possible to create feedback loops that enable customers to comment on information and provide feedback that goes directly to writers. This is useful to writers in several ways. Not only can they improve the content based on this feedback and eliminate content that is not useful, but they can also provide feedback to product managers about where customers are struggling with the products.

Communities Sharing Knowledge

Live product content gives companies the ability to engage their community of customers in the development of the content. Customers often become experts on the products they purchase and find ways to use the products that have never been documented by the company that sells them. This “communal knowledge” is very useful to other customers. Customers often like to share their knowledge with one another, both to help other people and to exhibit their expertise. By providing a way for the community of users to create their own product content, a company cultivates brand loyalty. While wikis and forums have served this purpose in recent years, they do not provide an easy way to combine “official” company information and informal communal knowledge. There is no mechanism to easily incorporate useful community content into the official company information. Living product content provides a vehicle whereby the blending of “authorized” (company) and “unofficial” (communal) knowledge can take place. Communal knowledge can be stored with and alongside “authorized” knowledge and writing teams can set up processes whereby highly ranked “community” content can be curated and approved and eventually incorporated into official company information.

Enterprise-Wide Consistency

Live product content provides an opportunity to provide a single source of content ‘truth’ and eliminate redundant and inconsistent content across the enterprise. For historical reasons, and as an artifact of most companies’ organizational structure, technical writing organizations, support, and training organizations all write their own content in parallel. Often, support and training are cutting and pasting some of their content from the technical documentation. The result is replication of content and the inability to keep that content synchronized. Customers find duplicate, inconsistent, and sometimes contradictory information on a company’s website. Without a single source of truth, customers find too many answers to their questions. When product content is modularized, it can be updated across the global organization simultaneously. Support and training teams can leverage information that is updated by the technical writing teams. They can still further enrich that content with information that is specific to their organizations.

Easy Collaboration

Live product content allows for tribal knowledge to be more easily captured and shared. In traditional documentation processes, it is difficult for the subject matter experts (SMEs) or field service representatives to either contribute content to the process or to comment on the content that has been developed, because it is in static forms. SMEs end up having to laboriously make comments on PDF documents. Knowledge from field service representatives who have practical knowledge about “how-tos” with a product rarely have feedback loops that return this knowledge to the writers. With live product content, capturing knowledge in the organization is much more straightforward. Both experts and field service representatives can find information more easily and provide feedback immediately and directly to content that is updated. The whole process makes knowledge sharing and collaboration easier within the organization and allows for tribal knowledge to be effectively captured and ultimately benefit customers.

Revenue Opportunities

Live product content can be an upsell revenue opportunity. With the traditional documentation model, technical information is really intended to help a person primarily with their out-of-box experience (OOBE) and to serve as a technical resource when needed. The shift to live product content opens up the chance to use a customer question as an upsell opportunity. For example, imagine the person who comes to the website to figure out how to print a photo on a printer. The primary goal, of course, is to give the person the information needed. However, that moment also becomes an opportunity to tell the customer about a new camera or printer that makes it possible to print photos via Bluetooth. This shift to online product content blurs the earlier boundary between “pre” and “post” sales engagement.


The internet and mobile channels are well on their way to making traditional documentation obsolete. Organizations that are tuned in to these trends are moving away from traditional documentation processes and embracing the notion of live product content. In this new model, traditional documentation processes are changed and writers produce product content in modules that can be assembled interactively and dynamically in response to a customer’s background, interests and needs. This flexibility in turn allows companies to improve customer experience, divert calls from support centers, and provide new revenue opportunities. This is why we believe we are now witnessing the death of technical documentation as we know it. CIDMIconNewsletter

Howard Schwartz


Howard Schwartz, PhD, is SVP of Content Technologies for SDL’s Structured Content Technologies division and has been responsible for the go to market strategy for the division. He has also led SDL in developing the company’s DITA and XML business strategies. Howard has fifteen years of experience advising companies on the implementation of technology and best practices to streamline various parts of the global content lifecycle. Before leading SDL’s XML strategies, Howard was VP of Business Consulting for SDL’s language technology organization. Howard joined SDL through the acquisition of Trados, where he played various executive roles including VP of Business Consulting and Marketing. Earlier in his career, Howard managed technical publications at Genesys Telecommunications. Howard has a PhD from Brown University, a BA in Psychology from Duke University and has taught at Stanford, Indiana, Temple, and Santa Clara Universities.

For more information about moving to a modular-based content development model, see the white paper, “Transforming Technical Documentation.” The paper will be available for download at

For additional resources related to live product content, including recorded webinars, industry research, and case studies, visit

Figure 1: A New Paradigm is Emerging Where Product Content is Tailored to Deliver a Unique Customer Experience